Md. plan to revive bay is unveiled

$13.6 billion proposed to upgrade sewage plants, reduce farm, city runoff

May 01, 2004|By Michael Stroh and Timothy B. Wheeler | Michael Stroh and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

After years of debate, the state released yesterday an ambitious $13.6 billion blueprint for slashing nutrients draining into the Chesapeake Bay and restoring its waters to health by 2010.

The plan, which proposes costly and politically difficult actions, would affect not only those who live on the water's edge, but also residents hundreds of miles inland.

It calls for sweeping upgrades at sewage-treatment plants and backyard septic tanks. Farmers would be called upon to do much more to rein in fertilizer use and change their crop-planting habits.

"Restoration of the bay will require actions and a commitment from everyone living and working in the bay watershed, from the mountains in Western Maryland to the Eastern Shore," Natural Resources Secretary C. Ronald Franks said yesterday in a statement.

The plan, which covers Maryland's share of a multistate effort to bring back the nation's largest estuary, proposes more than doubling the pollution reductions made by the state since the cleanup effort formally began two decades ago.

The cost is about three times what the state now spends or is committed to spend on bay restoration. State officials could not be reached last night to explain how they intend to raise the funds needed.

"It's a very ambitious strategy," said Kelly Shenk of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program office. "Now it's a matter of figuring out what legislative initiatives are needed, what policy changes, how to make it happen."

Environmental groups praised the goals yesterday but were disappointed that the blueprint offered few specifics.

"It's an ambitious plan. What we need are more concrete actions," said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Shenk said Maryland and the other five states making up the bay drainage area intend to flesh out their plans in public meetings with farmers, local officials, businessmen and other residents by year's end

Also participating in the cleanup are Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia. The District of Columbia and the federal government also are partners in the largely voluntary effort, which began formally in December 1983. Virginia unveiled a $3.2 billion cleanup plan last month.

Rockfish, shad and underwater grasses have begun to bounce back, but the creatures most crucial to the bay's health and economy - crabs and oysters - have declined.

Much of the blame has been placed on nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, which fuels algae blooms that can seriously harm marine life.

State and federal officials agreed in 2000 to redouble efforts to curb nutrients enough to allow fish and shellfish to thrive. Maryland must reduce nitrogen entering the bay by 35 percent in the next six years and phosphorus by 25 percent.

"The overall nutrient-reduction goals for the bay are within what can technically be accomplished," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "It's really a question about whether we have the capacity and time to do it by 2010."

The significant strategies addressed in the new blueprint include:

Septic tanks: Beginning next year, all new septic systems would have to be capable of removing nitrogen from wastewater. Owners of existing systems would be offered financial aid to upgrade their systems.

Septic tanks, which serve about 450,000 homes not linked to sewers, send millions of pounds of nitrogen into the bay each year. In 2000, Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed requiring new septic systems to help the bay, but opposition from real estate and rural interests persuaded legislators to kill it.

Agriculture: Farmers would be encouraged - again, through financial aid - to plant 600,000 acres of cover crops to soak up nutrients that might otherwise wash into the bay.

That would be a sevenfold increase in the current acreage planted with such cover crops, said Thomas W. Simpson, a University of Maryland agriculture professor and leading technical adviser on farm pollution for the bay cleanup effort.

Sewage: Wastewater-treatment plants, which in 2002 were responsible for one-quarter of the nitrogen in the bay, would be upgraded to reduce nutrient discharges.

Development: Ponds and holding tanks would be installed to filter polluted rainfall runoff from streets and lawns. Up to 40 percent of the land developed before runoff measures were required would be retrofitted.

"Maybe we now understand how bad a condition the bay was in with respect to nutrients when we look at how major the effort has to be and how far we have to go with these practices to remove the nutrients," Simpson said.

The state has made significant headway toward those goals. This year, legislators passed the "flush tax," which officials estimate will raise $1 billion for upgrading 66 sewage-treatment plants, planting additional cover crops and replacing some outdated septic systems.

According to the strategy filed yesterday with the EPA, the state has secured slightly less than a third of the $13.6 billion to carry out the plan. It's unclear where the rest of the money - more than $9 billion - will come from.

Bay-saving proposals

New septic systems capable of removing nitrogen from wastewater.

Farmers encouraged to plant cover crops to soak up nutrients.

Wastewater treatment plants upgraded to reduce nutrient discharges.

Ponds and holding tanks to filter runoff from city and suburban neighborhoods.

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