Cutting nutrients curbs rainy year's setbacks to the bay

After expecting the worst, scientists seeing signs of Chesapeake's recovery

November 07, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The deluge of rain in the mid-Atlantic region this year will set back the Chesapeake Bay's recovery, but it could have been much worse if steps had not been taken to cut nutrients from sewage treatment plants and farms, scientists said yesterday.

"We were expecting the worst," said Richard Batiuk, associate director for science at the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. "We've seen some things this year that weren't good, but it wasn't the worst."

In a briefing in Annapolis on the effects of this year's near-record flow of water into the bay, state and federal scientists said they are seeing encouraging signs in their restoration efforts. At the same time, they acknowledged that they have a long way to go to clean up hundreds of years of pollution.

The drought years of 2001 and 2002 offered a glimpse of the kind of recovery that scientists are seeking: a surge in the bay's grasses, relatively healthy levels of dissolved oxygen, a burgeoning rockfish population, and high levels of water clarity.

But this year has seen an unusually large amount of water - particularly since March - flowing into the bay, thanks to a heavy snowmelt, a wet spring and summer, and Tropical Storm Isabel.

In an average year, about 54 billion gallons of water flow into the bay each day, said Scott Phillips, the U.S. Geological Survey's Chesapeake Bay coordinator. This year, water flow is about 50 percent above that average. It's higher than in 1996, the region's last very wet year, but is still slightly behind the record set in 1972 when Tropical Storm Agnes hit the area.

Despite the high flow of water, scientists said they are heartened by an apparent reduction in the concentration of nutrients. Nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, cause algae blooms that deplete the bay's oxygen.

"We think this is a reflection of some results we're starting to see from the management actions," said Steve Preston, the geological survey's Chesapeake Bay Program monitoring coordinator. "We have begun to see some improvements."

Maryland and other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have agreed to cut nutrient runoff in half by 2010. Steps to curb the two primary sources of nutrients, agriculture and wastewater treatment plants, appear to be showing results, Batiuk and others said.

For example, low oxygen levels that were found in a huge area of the bay in early July "did not persist through the entire summer," Batiuk said.

He expects the 90,000 acres of underwater grasses found this year to decline in next year's survey, but not significantly. The goal is 185,000 acres of underwater vegetation.

But William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the situation remains bleak.

"What the public has got to know is that 250 square miles of the bay did not have enough oxygen to support most aquatic life. That's 40 percent of the bay's entire volume," Baker said.

"My worry is that I've seen a trend on the part of the EPA to sugarcoat the data, and that runs the risk of the public not understanding just how severe the water-quality problems in the bay are."

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