Bay is still hurting, 2 reports say

Quality of water called poor

loss of grasses noted

April 19, 2007|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN REPORTER

The Chesapeake Bay remains in terrible shape by virtually every measure used to assess its health, according to two reports released yesterday.

There was little good news in the 2006 Health and Restoration Assessment put out by the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and states in the bay watershed. The report found degraded water quality, a decline in the blue crab population, contaminated rivers and huge losses in bay grasses.

"I think this report really prompts us to ask some hard questions." said Jeff Lape, who became director of the Chesapeake Bay Program office this month. "We have to energize the 16 million residents of this bay. It is really a call to action for us."

The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science took a different approach in its evaluation, offering a river-by-river report card for water clarity, dissolved oxygen levels and quality of life for small clams and worms. The results were equally dismal, with the Patapsco and Back rivers failing and the upper bay, which scored the best, getting a grade of C+.

The university's overall grade for the bay was D+.

The reports were released as states and the federal government are putting more money into bay cleanup.

The flush tax, which former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed into law in 2004, is expected to raise about $65 million a year to upgrade sewage treatment plants to reduce pollution that flows into waterways.

Virginia is committing funds to address pollution from sewage treatment plants, and dozens of scientists in the region are studying the bay's creatures and looking at ways to help them thrive in an increasingly toxic environment.

Bay advocates say the money will eventually make a difference, but many said they have grown weary of hearing the same gloomy assessments of the bay's health.

"We're tired of studying the problem, and we want to be part of solving the problem," said William C. Dennison, a vice president at the Center for Environmental Science.

Dennison said that scoring the bay's problem areas separately could make restoration easier because most of the rivers are entirely in Maryland's control and state officials would not be able to blame Pennsylvania or Virginia for a lack of progress.

"Having a real understanding of what's out there, as bleak as that picture may be, is the only way we're going to start getting to the level of commitment and resources that we need," he said.

Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said state and federal officials have long known what to do to save the bay but have not found the political will to do it. Three years ago, the foundation sued the EPA, saying it had failed to adequately regulate sewage treatment plants.

"There have been significant opportunities that bay leadership has failed to take," Hoagland said.

He was referring to the failure of the proposed Green Fund in Maryland, which would have imposed fees on development and could have raised more than $100 million to help clean the bay. The legislation was passed by the House of Delegates but died in the Senate.

Hoagland said state leaders should be working to secure $200 million in federal aid for the bay from this year's farm bill. The money would help farmers pay for pollution-control measures.

David Bancroft, president of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, said the region needs to come up with more money to address the growth coming to the watershed.

"Agriculture is the 800-pound gorilla when you're looking at nutrient pollution," Bancroft said. "But population growth is the 8,000-pound gorilla waiting in the wings."

rona.kobell@baltsun.com

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