Chesapeake `still dying,' foundation says

Tougher standards for treatment plants urged in annual report

November 12, 2003|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

This year's heavy rainfall and nutrient runoff worsened the health of the Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation reported yesterday, as its president sharply criticized the lack of tougher standards for wastewater treatment plants.

"This shows a bay that is still dying despite 20 years of work by federal and state agencies," said foundation President William C. Baker. "The bay's health remains exceptionally poor and our region's governors have yet to take the actions needed."

The sixth annual report card by the nonprofit foundation gave the bay a score of 27 out of 100, down one point from 2002. The evaluation is based on 13 indicators the foundation selected from three categories: pollution, wildlife habitat and fisheries.

A score of 100 reflects the pristine conditions found by Capt. John Smith in the 1600s, which Baker and the foundation acknowledge can never be re-established. The foundation aims to reach a score of 40 by 2010, 50 by 2020, and 70 by 2050.

The foundation's pessimistic assessment conflicts with a briefing by federal and state scientists last week that highlighted more upbeat indicators.

The scientists pointed to data showing that the concentration of harmful nutrients flowing into the bay has decreased -- which means that the deluge of water from rainfall and Tropical Storm Isabel was less harmful than it would have been a decade ago.

"I don't think I disagree with a lot of what the bay foundation is saying, but I think you need to look at the data as a trend over time," said Richard Batiuk, associate director for science at the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program. "The bay did see more nitrogen and phosphorus pollution this year because of all of the rain. But to judge all of the efforts ... just based on this year is not the way to do it."

Baker agreed that conditions have improved since the 1980s, when the Chesapeake Bay Program was created as a federal-state partnership. The foundation's report card score of 27 also reflects some of those gains, up from 24 in its first assessment.

Nevertheless, Baker said that the "politics of postponement" have thwarted efforts to curb nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Those nutrients cause algae blooms in the summer and deplete the bay's oxygen, creating areas that are unhealthy for marine life.

"It's time to enforce the law and stop the pollution. Not next year, not next month, but today," Baker said at a morning news conference at the St. John's College boathouse on College Creek in Annapolis.

The foundation has argued this fall that state and federal officials should require wastewater treatment plants to upgrade their equipment to put stricter limits on nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. Only 10 of the 300 plants feeding into the bay and its tributaries have the most up-to-date equipment, according to the foundation.

Sewage treatment plants represent about 20 percent of the nutrient flow into the bay, while agriculture accounts for about 40 percent. If the foundation's recommendations were put into effect, the flow of nitrogen into the bay would be cut by an average of 40 million pounds per year. That's about a third of its 2010 goal, which would be a 110 million pound annual reduction.

"It would have a huge impact," Baker said.

While the report card noted declines in scores for dissolved oxygen and water clarity in the bay, it noted improvements in restoration of forest buffers along the water and the population of shad.

"The shad give us faith that the bay is fighting for survival and can be restored to her former glory if we give her a chance," Baker said.

Baker said he is concerned that federal and state authorities appear ready to set a target of 10,000 more miles of forest buffer restoration by 2010, while the foundation wants 26,000 miles.

Batiuk agreed that 26,000 miles is an ideal long-term goal, but said 10,000 is realistic for 2010. "Just getting 10,000 more miles will take a very big push," Batiuk said.

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