To the rescue

April 16, 2004

LIKE ANY beauty, the Chesapeake Bay is good at hiding her flaws.

From a waterfront villa, a bayside bluff or the top deck of cabin cruiser, the water looks soothing, serene. At this time of year, especially, there's little hint of what lies below.

Once the algae blooms and begins stealing oxygen, the bay's degradation is increasingly hard to hide. Last year, the evidence was striking: crabs crawling out of the water gasping for air, dead fish floating on the surface, a slimy green film covering anything that touched the water. Many Marylanders finally became alarmed.

Thus the bay itself was doubtless the most influential lobbyist working the halls of the State House this year when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly approved one of the most impressive antipollution packages in years.

It's work that all involved can be very proud of, but only a good start. There's so much more to do, and not much time to waste.

The key achievement of this year - of the past two decades since the bay cleanup was launched - was enactment of the so-called flush tax. For $2.50 a month, all Marylanders will share in the common cause of removing as much algae-feeding nitrogen from sewage as technology allows.

Methods for collecting those fees from users of septic tanks as well as public water and sewer need to be quickly designed and implemented. Financially strapped local governments will have to fight the temptation to use those funds for routine repairs.

But Mr. Ehrlich has earned the right to challenge other governors in the region - and even President Bush - to follow Maryland's lead and take whatever steps are necessary to get the bay off the federal "impaired waters" list by the target date of 2010.

Less showy but potentially more sweeping was the legislature's decision to restore protection from development for the critical areas surrounding the bay that the Maryland Court of Appeals had disastrously stripped away.

By simultaneously increasing the fine for violating those restrictions from $500 to $10,000, the lawmakers also handed local governments a powerful new enforcement tool.

Two other enacted proposals may form the basis for curbing a third major source of bay pollution: agricultural runoff. Governor Ehrlich did not ease requirements for managing fertilizers, as some farmers had hoped. Instead, he and the Assembly rewrote the rules to bring farmers more firmly into the cleanup campaign.

That cooperation, in turn, might be put to work on substituting cleaner, inorganic fertilizers for chicken manure, and using the manure to make electricity - thus helping meet demand created by new legislation calling for greater use of renewable fuels.

Already, there have been hints that another sorry-looking summer lies ahead for the bay. How nice to think it might be just a clever lobbying ploy.

No such luck.

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