Plan shows complexities of clean water


Restoration: A proposal to revise pollution classifications sparks a debate about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

March 18, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

A READER of The Sun's front page Monday ("Changes sought to rules on water") might well have wondered what's going on.

Here we are, struggling to meet ambitious federal and state goals to restore the Chesapeake Bay, and here is Maryland's Department of the Environment proposing that some parts of the system should be classified too polluted to restore.

Is this, as an MDE official told Sun reporter Tom Pelton, "just trying to be practical?" Or is it, as environmentalists protested, throwing in the towel?

When it comes to the bay's health, most of us understandably just want to know: "up or down," "clean or not."

But it's not so simple for the water quality managers at MDE - and to the polluters and environmental groups who scrutinize them.

Think of a homebuilder who sweats the details of compound mitre joints, roof and wall stress formulas, and electrical codes to produce your "dream home."

To build our dream bay, cleanup officials inhabit a complex world of water quality "criteria," from which they derive water quality "standards," then water quality "regulations," and maybe even water quality itself.

So it is that there's a bright side to the fury MDE is causing with its proposals to create a lower, "limited use" class for Maryland waters and to issue "variances" from full restoration.

That MDE feels the need to get real about water quality rules reflects how far bay managers have moved in the last few years toward turning warm and fuzzy cleanup goals into specific cleanup actions that could actually have consequences.

Consider what's known as "CB4" in bay cleanup jargon - that 40-mile section of the main Chesapeake from the bridges south to the mouth of the Patuxent River. CB4 is the first place the bay loses oxygen in its deep channels each summer, and the last segment to recover in autumn.

Even Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas, had they been equipped with oxygen meters in 1607, might have found less-than-perfect oxygen in CB4's summertime depths, says Rich Batiuk, a scientist at EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Meeting currently agreed-upon bay cleanup targets should make CB4 healthier for aquatic life than it's been in half a century - but based on EPA computer models, it still won't meet overall bay water quality standards 1 percent to 5 percent of the time.

To bring stubborn CB4 up to the rest of the bay all the time would require what EPA dubbed its "E3" scenario - a computer-modeled exercise that assumed "everyone doing everything, everywhere" to reduce pollution.

Since no one's seriously considering E3, MDE is proposing a variance so it doesn't have to meet maximum water quality in CB4. A number of environmental groups flatly oppose this. "CB4 is absolutely key to the whole bay cleanup. ... It's what's going to drive how far Pennsylvania, upstream, has to go to reduce its share of bay pollution," says Beth McGee, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist. "Let's do the cleanup first and then see where we are."

Environmentalists have similar concerns about MDE's proposal to extend "limited use" designations to urban streams and agricultural ditching in rural areas. MDE argues it's only creating a category for places where cleanup may be so tough or expensive it won't be practical to restore - not putting specific waters in it, at least not yet.

But the agency's proposal is vague and broad, and it's naive to assume agricultural interests and developers and cities won't use it to evade cleanup responsibilities.

Indeed, the implications are potentially large. Only about 10 percent of Maryland's streams show good water quality, and urban runoff is a major reason why. On the Eastern Shore, only 5 percent show good quality, and agricultural drainage is the major reason.

"If you let these upstream waters off the hook, how are you going to clean up the water downstream?" asks W.R. "Nick" Carter, a retired state aquatic biologist who has analyzed MDE's proposal.

MDE has begun a debate that was bound to happen as the bay cleanup confronts how best to spend scarce money across a 64,000-square-mile watershed, and change polluting practices from chicken farming to sprawl development.

And there are surely places, such as frequently dredged harbor channels and ponds created to detain runoff, that can't be fully restored.

But I wince when Richard Eskin, MDE's chief of regulation, tells Pelton regarding bay cleanup: "Do you want to plant all of your lawns without fertilizer? Have only apartment buildings and the rest open space? I think most people would say, `No, let's do what's realistic.'"

Realistic? To me that sounds defeatist.

I'd rather hear Eskin and his boss, MDE Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick, and Philbrick's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., preaching about how to farm and develop with far less impact on water quality.

If only the leadership was there to actually do it.

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