State to clean up Corsica River

$20 million and research of 30 agencies will aid Shore tributary


Centreville -- Anxious for results in the state's Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced plans yesterday for spending nearly $20 million and concentrating the research of 30 state, federal and private environmental agencies on improving the Corsica River - a small Eastern Shore tributary that scientists hope will serve as a model for baywide projects.

Ehrlich, who outlined the program during a news conference at Conquest Farm, a 250-acre protected property, was surrounded by an approving crowd of scientists and officials from state agencies and nonprofit groups who have formed a partnership designed to remove the Corsica from the federal government's list of "impaired waters."

Beyond improving the health of the waterway and its 24,000-acre watershed, which drains into the Chester River, officials say new research will help develop a pilot program that could be used in other bay tributaries.

"This is a blueprint for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay," Ehrlich said. "We have come up with this plan, and over the next 60 months, we're going to execute this plan. We're going to measure it monthly, measure it yearly, and we will report back to the people of Maryland."

Ehrlich also unveiled a program in which the state will be selling bottled water to raise money for bay restoration projects. Maryland Natural Spring Water, bottled by an Ellicott City company, could generate $180,000 the first year and as much as $400,000 annually, the Department of Natural Resources said.

The Corsica project will focus on two keystones to improving water quality - planting oysters and underwater grasses.

"Our thinking was that because this is a complete watershed, we can take our larger strategy and hone it down," said Frank W. Dawson III, head of DNR's watershed services division. "This way, we're taking a chunk we can handle. All of this will be learning as we go."

Officials from the state departments of Natural Resources, Environment, Agriculture and Planning are working on the project along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Besides restoring wetlands, oyster beds and creating nontidal wetlands, the program will seek grants to pay for winter cover crops in fields, an important factor in controlling nutrient runoff and erosion, officials said.

Dawson said the program has about $6 million, including pending grant applications, and will need significant federal support.

Officials from the Maryland Department of the Environment also will oversee upgrades of the waste treatment plant in Centreville, a town which drew unwanted attention two years ago when a 45-year-old municipal plant was found to have dumped as much as 1 million gallons of raw sewage into a small Corsica tributary.

The town has a new $9.7 million plant, but the facility will need to expand before additional significant development can occur.

As part of the Corsica project, the town's storm-water management system will be improved, and about 30 rural septic systems repaired or replaced.

"This range of projects has never been done in a single watershed," said Michael R. Roman, who heads the state's Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge. "I think we're at a point where we hope to show some progress for the citizens of Maryland," said Roman, who sits on a 20-member scientific advisory panel for the program.

Reaction was mixed from environmentalists, who have clashed with Ehrlich over everything from allowing watermen to use power dredges to harvest devastated bay oyster beds to introducing Asian oysters into bay waters to see whether they will be more resilient than native species.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the region's largest private environmental group, had criticized the Ehrlich administration in the spring for what the foundation said were attempts to weaken water-quality standards.

Yesterday, President Will Baker called it a "great day for the bay, ... for the Corsica River. We need to learn from this experiment and apply it to the whole bay."

Fred Tutman, one of 13 Riverkeepers, affiliates of the national Riverkeeper Alliance who work as environmental watchdogs on Maryland rivers, said he's skeptical. "No one's against cleaning up any part of the bay," said Tutman. "There have been numerous requests from the Patuxent [River], to no avail. Now they're pulling a rabbit out of the hat because it's getting close to an election."

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