Chesapeake Bay health rated slightly better

November 14, 2006|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

The health of the Chesapeake Bay improved slightly this year, but that was largely because of a lack of spring rains rather than any environmental program, according to a report released yesterday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The foundation's annual State of the Bay Report gave the bay a score of 29 out of 100. That is better than the 27 it scored the past three years, but not nearly good enough to protect the health of crabs, oysters, rockfish and other marine life, the report said.

The report gave the bay failing grades for nitrogen pollution, water quality, dissolved oxygen and other measures.

"Maybe, just maybe, 2006 will be remembered as the turning point of the bay," said foundation President William C. Baker. "But this report isn't good news. Clearly, a great deal more needs to be done. It's time to get serious about saving the bay."

Baker said weather made the biggest difference in the bay's slight improvement; rain washes pollutants into the water, so the dry weather helped.

Despite the generally gloomy assessment, Baker praised Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania for beginning to address the bay's two biggest pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, which come primarily from farm runoff and sewage treatment plants.

In the past decade, the states have encouraged the planting of cover crops, restoring forest buffers and managing farm waste.

The states also are making strides in improving sewage treatment, though the report said it's still too early to see changes from the Ehrlich administration's "flush tax" to pay for treatment plant upgrades.

In addition to slight improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, this year the bay had a smaller "dead zone," or area with little or no oxygen to sustain marine life.

The watershed saw more wooded buffer being planted along streams and rivers, particularly in Pennsylvania, and a slight improvement in the health of the bay's once-abundant oyster population.

But underwater grasses were slightly worse in 2006, mostly because of lingering effects of a huge eelgrass die-off in 2005, while blue crabs and rockfish remained stable.

Baker said that if the new administration wants to clean up the bay, it must address population growth in the watershed, which is home to about 150,000 newcomers every year.

The foundation has recommended using a regional planning approach to control growth so that towns and counties have a say in developments along their borders that will affect their roads and schools.

It also recommends strengthening storm water permits to reduce pollutants flowing into the bay.

Baker said he hopes to harness the momentum from the Blackwater battle into a push for regional planning. The foundation opposed a plan to build a 3,200-home subdivision next to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Residents from all over the Eastern Shore - and beyond - joined in fighting the project because of concerns about traffic, the threat to the refuge and the loss of open space.

Last month, the Critical Area Commission voted to block part of the development. And a day before he lost his re-election bid, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. announced a plan to spend up to $10.4 million to preserve two-thirds of the property, allowing the developer to build a much smaller community.

"It is a great victory," Baker said. "We're really hoping the state and the counties will look at regional planning."

Baker said he will lobby the new O'Malley administration and the General Assembly to pass a tax-credit trading program for farmers, which would allow businesses to pay farmers to reduce pollution in exchange for tax credits.

Pennsylvania recently passed such a measure, and Baker said passing a similar law in Maryland could lead to a 15 million pound reduction in nitrogen flowing into the bay.

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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