Budget Cuts Hit Clean-bay Initiatives

Runoff Pollution, Algae Bloom Initiatives Reduced

July 25, 2009|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

The latest round of state budget cuts is taking a couple of bites out of Maryland's efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay, trimming plans to tackle polluted runoff from city and suburban streets and curtailing monitoring of the bay's health.

State officials are cutting $2 million from the Bay Trust Fund, a special pot of money lawmakers had agreed on three years ago to earmark for curbing polluted runoff - a growing and particularly difficult problem for the bay. Originally meant to accelerate the pace of bay cleanup, the fund has been shrinking since its inception. Gov. Martin O'Malley asked this year for only half of its originally authorized $50 million as lawmakers wrestled with the worsening fiscal outlook, and the fund ultimately was whittled down to $10 million.

The cut means that Baltimore City and eight counties selected for funding will have to wait to launch projects intended to reduce stormwater pollution, or else start them on a smaller scale, state officials said.

Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin said he tried to limit the impact on his agency's core conservation work of the $280 million in spending cuts he and other department heads had to make this week. In addition to the bay trust fund cut, the department cut $2.1 million from its budget. It laid off 20 of about 1,300 employees and cut 3.5 vacant positions.

"We're trying to consolidate and eliminate things that just aren't as critical," he said, but some impacts were inevitable.

In the case of the bay fund, an O'Malley initiative, the state announced in February it would finance local government proposals to retrofit storm drains and ponds, install rain gardens, plant trees and create wetlands to soak up polluted storm water.

Only Howard County has received funding, about $340,000 to begin work on reducing runoff pollution of the Little Patuxent River. But the county's plan for the river calls for spending $7 million in all, said Jeff Horan, DNR's chief of watershed services.

Beyond the cut in the fund's budgeted amount, revenues earmarked for it from taxes on rental cars and motor fuel have fallen about $1.5 million short of projections, Horan said, making the overall reduction for this year about $3.5 million.

"We'll still deliver some bay restoration in the next two years," he said. "It's just not as much as we had hoped."

The state also eliminated funding for monitoring algae blooms in the bay. The cut, about $220,000, would have gone to Morgan State University's laboratory on the Patuxent River in Calvert County.

Bruce Michael, DNR's chief of resource assessment, said the agency would still be checking on harmful algal blooms, particularly those that may pose health hazards for people swimming or wading in the water.

But the extent of algae growth has been a key indicator of water quality, affecting the size of the oxygen-starved "dead zone" that forms every summer in the bay, stressing fish and crabs. Bay scientists have used the algae monitoring in preparing annual "report cards" tracking the health of the bay and its tributaries.

Those bay health checkups "won't be quite as comprehensive," Michael acknowledged. "It's going to be a missing piece." Environmentalists expressed disappointment with the cuts.

"The bay is just another casualty of this economic downturn," said Tom Zolper, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had pressed hard for creation of a runoff fund. "It's vital this money be restored in full as soon as possible."

Still, Zolper said cuts to environmental programs were not surprising.

"Everybody's hurting," he said. "You can't expect to be spared."

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