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More boats and marinas threaten bottom growth RETURN OF THE BAY GRASS


Richard Klein's name was misspelled in the photo caption accompanying a story in Wednesday's Sun about the potential for bay grasses to return to Scotchman Creek near Hack Point in Cecil County. Also, the name of the acting city collector, Ottavio Grande, was misspelled in a story yesterday.

The Sun regrets the errors.

HACK POINT -- Old-timers like Robert Walker remember when the plants growing on the bottom of Scotchman Creek were so thick that boaters had to pull their outboard motors out of the water to keep the props from being fouled.

Now, you can't see anything growing in the soft mud of the creek, which branches off the Bohemia River in Cecil County. The water's too murky, for one thing, to see even 6 inches below the surface.

In Annapolis today, government officials plan to make restoration of underwater grasses to places like Scotchman Creek the yardstick of the $400 million-a-year effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The plants -- which feed and shelter the estuary's crabs, fish and waterfowl -- have made a modest comeback in recent years after almost vanishing in the late 1970s.

But Mr. Walker and others in this small Eastern Shore community fear the grasses may not return to their little corner of the bay if the state permits a marina near the mouth of the creek to expand.

"There's a possibility the grass could come back, but if you keep getting boat wakes and boats going through it, it won't ever come back," said Mr. Walker, 69, who grew up here.

By themselves, the 3 1/2 acres of creek bottom that would be dredged to expand Losten Marina aren't going to make or break the bay grass revival. But this is where the rhetoric of restoring the Chesapeake clashes with the reality of people -- and their boats -- flocking to the water to enjoy the bay's aquatic abundance.

"If you don't have [underwater grass] now, and you put marinas in, you may never see it," said Dr. Robert J. Orth, a biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has tracked the ebb and return of the bay's grasses.

Besides their value as food and haven for muskrats, ducks, and fish, the grasses also help keep the bay clean. They filter out sediment and consume nutrients, which otherwise might fuel the massive "blooms" of algae that can foul the waters in spring and summer.

But the grasses cannot survive in water made so murky by mud or algae that sunlight cannot reach them. Tropical Storm Agnes, which devastated the bay region in 1972, delivered a mortal blow to many grass beds, smothering river and stream bottoms with millions of tons of mud. But in some places the decline had begun before the storm, and continued long afterward in others.

The grasses apparently hit bottom in 1984, when aerial surveys coordinated by Dr. Orth revealed only about 38,000 acres growing throughout the bay. That was just a year after federal officials and leaders in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the District of Columbia signed the first bay cleanup agreement, pledging to curtail the nutrients from sewage, farms and development that are choking the bay of its life.

Since then, the grasses have returned in a few rivers like the Potomac, around Smith and Tangier islands, and in Virginia's Mobjack Bay. Last year's survey found 62,000 acres, said Dr. Orth.

Buoyed by the apparent recovery, officials now hope to curb the nutrient pollution enough to boost grasses to 120,000 acres by the end of the decade. Scientists say they think they know enough now about how clean the water has to be for the vegetation to thrive.

The ultimate goal, however, is to get submerged plants growing on more than 600,000 acres where the water is shallow enough -- less than six feet deep -- to let sunlight reach the bottom.

"We've got a long way to go, but it's not out of the question that we could get to those levels," said William Matuszeski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's bay program office in Annapolis.

Scotchman Creek may be ripe for a rebound of its grasses. Seeds of four different plants, including two species rarely found in Maryland waters, were found on the bottom near the marina. Most were found near a marsh just upstream, but some also were found just across from the marina and in the mud where a new boating channel is to be dredged.

Most of the seeds probably washed down the creek from grass beds farther upstream, according to William B. Hilgartner, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University who sampled the bottom. But some also may have come from plants that grew within the past few years near the area to be dredged, he added.

"The seeds aren't lying," said Mr. Hilgartner. "These plants have got to be real nearby."

Residents point out that striped bass, herring and perch spawn in the creek, a popular spot for catching bass, freshwater fish that like to lurk on the edge of grass beds.

Residents say they fear the dredging and boat traffic will stir up the bottom, making the water murkier and eroding two nearby marshes, which also are vital fish and bird habitat.

Using hand-made depth markers, Mr. Walker and Vincent Schiavone, another waterfront homeowner, last week demonstrated that some areas where the dredging is to take place are only 2 to 3 feet deep at low tide. That is shallow enough for grasses to grow there -- if the water quality is good enough, said Richard Klein, an environmental consultant for residents opposing the project.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which regulates marina development and dredging, had recommended the state Board of Public Works approve Losten Marina's bid to expand from 50 to 127 boat slips.

The project already has a federal dredging permit.

State officials say they have no record that grasses ever grew around the marina. But they are reviewing the case since last month's discovery of the seeds and the residents' claim that the water is more shallow than the marina developer has said it is.

The state has denied marina permits in the past where live bay grasses were found, and it normally does not allow dredging in less than 3 feet of water, said Frank Dawson, chief of state tidal wetlands regulation.

"Whether or not a project could be denied based on the potential for [bay grasses], that's new territory," Mr. Dawson said.

But, noting that Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other bay leaders are pledging to clean up the water enough to revive bay grasses, Mr. Dawson said, "That commitment clearly means we're going to need to change the way we do business, and we will."

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