Report says bay's health is declining

Conditions worsen over past 5 years as wetlands are lost to development


The health of the Chesapeake Bay has declined over the past five years and could get even worse as hundreds of acres of wetlands are consumed by development, a nonprofit advocacy organization concludes in a report to be issued today.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's annual "State of the Bay" report gives the nation's largest estuary a grade of D, with a score of 27 out of 100. That is the same score as last year and down a point from 2000, a calculation based on a variety of health factors.

"The bay is still in a critical state of imbalance, with pollution causing large dead zones in the summer, and that should be a concern to everyone who loves the bay," said William C. Baker, president of the foundation.

Signs of hope include an increase in aquatic plants near the Susquehanna River in the northern part of the bay and large numbers of rockfish, which have rebounded over the past decade, the organization reports.

But an increasing threat to the bay are major construction projects that could eat up wetlands vital to the filtering of water and the reproduction of fish and birds, the report says.

In Virginia, Newport News officials are planning to flood about 400 acres of wetlands to create a 12-billion-gallon drinking water reserve to be called the King William Reservoir.

In Montgomery County, the planned Intercounty Connector highway project is expected to destroy almost 70 acres of wetlands. And on the Eastern Shore, developers are planning to build a 3,200-home subdivision on farmland and wetlands near the entrance to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said such wetlands play a critical role in filtering the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

"One of the things we've just been finding out is that these wetlands along the rivers that enter the bay are actually more important than we thought in removing nutrients," Boesch said. "They are functioning as kind of the kidneys of the system."

Nutrient pollution, often in the form of manure fertilizer on farms, is washed by rain off fields and into bay tributaries, where it spurs algae blooms that devour oxygen, suffocating oysters and driving away fish.

To help reduce this runoff, the foundation next year will ask the state for an additional $120 million for programs to encourage farmers to plant buffer strips along streams and cover crops during the winter to absorb nutrients, Baker said.

The state made a record $5 million available this year to help pay for farmers to plant winter cover crops. The money will allow 950 farmers to plant about 150,000 acres this winter with wheat, barley, rye and other crops not normally planted in the off-season.

These plantings will help absorb fertilizer left over from the summer growing season, said Sue DuPont, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. "It's a great way to control soil erosion," she said.

Five years ago, the states surrounding the bay signed an agreement to clean up the Chesapeake enough by the year 2010 to get it off a federal list of polluted waterways.

Maryland took a step in the right direction last year by approving the "flush tax" to pay for sewage treatment plant improvements, foundation officials wrote. But halfway to the 2010 deadline, the bay is getting worse, with 41 percent of the estuary considered a low-oxygen "dead zone" in August, marking one of the worst summers on record.

"Clearly, what public officials have done is far from enough," the foundation's report says.

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