Chesapeake Bay still losing ground Foundation calls for tougher pollution limits.

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

Chesapeake Bay continues to decline, despite the comeback of rockfish and reduced pollution from factories and municipal sewage plants, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said today.

In a sweeping 288-page report on the state of the bay, the Annapolis environmental group concludes that "a decade of intense private and public effort to save the bay has averted immediate disaster."

But the Chesapeake is still losing ground to suburban sprawl that gnaws away at the bay's remaining forests and wetlands, robbing it of its ability to recover from the pollution that has degraded its waters.

The report, titled "Turning the Tide," calls for an immediate baywide moratorium on harvesting oysters, among other things, as well as more stringent pollution controls on farming and development and a cap on population growth in the bay region.

Those recommendations already are getting a chilly reception from farmers and fisheries officials, and watermen are sure to fight any move to ban oyster harvesting.

But William C. Baker, the bay foundation's president, contends that current efforts to save the bay are not nearly enough, given projections that nearly 3 million more people are expected to settle around the bay over the next 30 years.

"We can't just say we want the bay to be restored and not tackle the tough questions," Baker said in an interview. He suggested it is time for a new "summit" of state and federal officials to reassess the multistate bay cleanup effort agreed to at the last such meeting in December 1987.

Underwritten by a $160,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the bay foundation report contains no new scientific findings, but instead draws on existing research to compile a layman's "report card" on the Chesapeake's condition, from the clarity of its water the abundance of its waterfowl.

The report, published by Island Press, was written by Tom Horton, a former environmental reporter for The Sun who now works for the bay foundation, and by William M. Eichbaum, a vice president of the World Wildlife Fund who helped launch the regional bay cleanup under Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.

"Nearly eight years after the historic agreement to restore the bay's health made . . . in December 1983, there still is no discernible trend toward a systemwide comeback," the report concludes. "Progress too often is still of the variety that has been characterized as rowing ahead at four knots when the current is moving against us at five."

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade sewage-treatment plants has helped restore water quality on portions of the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, the report acknowledges. And striped bass, or rockfish, have rebounded dramatically after a five-year fishing moratorium in Maryland and severe catch limits elsewhere along the Atlantic Coast.

But the report takes little satisfaction from such gains, noting that rockfish reproduced poorly again last year after the near-record 1989 spawn that prompted an easing of the baywide fishing ban.

And, even though blue crab harvests continue at near-record levels, the report notes that watermen are working much harder today to haul in the same catch, and there is no other seafood staple for them to fall back on if the crab populations do crash.

Oysters, once the backbone of the bay, are at an all-time low, the report notes, with stocks only 1 percent of what they were a century ago. And it suggests that officials spend as much on restoring oysters as they do on sewage treatment, noting that the shellfish naturally filter out the silt and nutrients that are degrading the bay's water.

The report also points out that:

* Underwater bay grasses, whose dramatic disappearance two decades ago signaled the bay's distress, seem to have recovered slightly in the last few years. But they still remain far below previous levels.

* Controlling pollution from agriculture, "a major source of the bay's water quality problems, is proving much more difficult and less effective than we had hoped."

The report calls for making pollution-control practices a condition of getting government agricultural subsidies, targeting problem farms for "immediate mandatory cleanups" and even requiring some livestock farmers to operate under discharge permits, as factories do.

* Sediment- and stormwater-control devices required for new development do not keep enough mud and pollution out of streams and the bay. About three-fourths of 90 construction sites surveyed in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania were doing a poor job of keeping sediment from washing off the land, and only 10 percent were taking the pollutants out of stormwater runoff.

The foundation's report finds Maryland has done more than its neighbors, Virginia and Pennsylvania, particularly with its Critical Area and non-tidal wetlands laws. But it finds fault with Maryland as well, saying that no state has done enough yet to curb the sprawling growth that has gobbled up farmland, forests and wetlands.

"The most fundamental source of pollution is population growth," the report says. "Reducing per-capita impacts on the environment can take us a long way toward a cleaner bay, but ultimately there must be a limit to how many people can live around the bay and sustain the natural environment there."

The federal government, which coordinates the bay cleanup effort through the Environmental Protection Agency, also receives its share of criticism.

"We are looking for strong leadership and a reaffirmation that restoring the bay is a national objective," Baker said. "We don't see as much enthusiasm and as much leadership coming out of EPA as we would like."

Indeed, the bay foundation released its report today at a press conference in Washington to press the Bush administration and Congress for renewed commitment to the bay's restoration.

The report criticizes recent moves by the Bush administration to roll back regulation of non-tidal wetlands -- freshwater bogs, marshes and occasionally damp fields and forests that soak up pollutants and sustain varied plants and animals.

Early reaction to the report varied from muted praise to outright criticism.

An EPA spokeswoman praised the report as "thorough and informative," but said agency officials disagreed with the foundation on some of its assessments and recommendations.

"We think there are some improvements in areas they said nothing was happening," said Gail Tindall, a public affairs officer in EPA's Philadelphia regional office. She cited recent recoveries of submerged bay grasses as an example.

She also called the report's call for an oyster moratorium unrealistic and took issue with the foundation president's criticism of EPA.

"We disagree totally that our enthusiasm for the Chesapeake Bay program has flagged," she said. EPA Administrator William K. Reilly, who is chairman of the interstate bay cleanup effort, was invited to today's press conference but could not attend because of a prior commitment, she said.

Thomas Burke, a bay spokesman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, praised the report, saying it outlines a "tough agenda" for future action by government and individuals alike.

"I don't think people are quite yet willing to put the public good ahead of special interests," Burke said, noting legislative resistance to the governor's growth-management bill this year.

Other state officials were not as kind. W. Peter Jensen, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources, reiterated his agency's position that an oyster moratorium is impractical and unnecessary.

"I don't think you can say that a moratorium is the fix for all of the bay's oyster population," he said, noting that while Virginia's harvest last winter hit an all-time low, Maryland's catch recovered some, to 415,000 bushels.

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