Bay of Grass


Beneath the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay lies an unseen jungle of grass. It nurtures the teeming vessel of aquatic life that sustains the Land of Pleasant Living for 14 million humans above ground. The underwater grass feeds and protects fish, mammals and birds; it cleans the estuary waters of sediment and pollutants.

Both man and nature have destroyed much of this submerged vegetation over time, but the fecund beds have staged a remarkable comeback over the the past decade and the entire bay has benefited. The amended Chesapeake Bay Agreement signed last week by Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognizes the health of these underwater grasses as an essential yardstick for marking progress of the estuary's cleanup.

The new bay agreement, however, stops short of endorsing a proposal to double the area of underwater plants by the year 2000, the kind of specific action goals urged by environmentalists. With scarcely 62,000 acres of submerged grasslands sighted by scientists, against a potential 600,000 acres of shallow bay where grasses can grow, that restoration goal would be a modest one. To his credit, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has pledged voluntarily to double the acreage in Maryland's part of the estuary.

By expanding the restoration plan into 10 major rivers that feed the estuary, the program takes an important step that can further protect the grassy bottoms that provide crucial spawning grounds and habitat for living resources.

Significant progress has certainly been made in improving the water quality and habitat in the Chesapeake since the original 1983 agreement. Phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, which feed harmful algae explosions, has been reduced. Cleaner auto exhaust requirements under the Clean Air Act will further cut nitrogen pollution: autos account for a third of the bay's nitrogen pollution.

Sadly, Maryland and Virginia leaders refused to require farmers to stem the polluting runoff of fertilizers and animal manure, which make up nearly half the phosphorus and nitrogen dumped into the bay. Pennsylvania is rightly moving to limit those contaminants. The time for voluntary action to curb farm pollution has passed, despite Mr. Schaefer's claim that farmers will act on their own once they see how it can save money. Demonstration projects -- one is going on now along Maryland's Monocacy River -- have repeatedly shown positive economic results, but many farmers fail to follow suit because it requires change and effort.

Legal controls are needed to do what education has long failed to do. If the governors have the political courage to impose more and more costly requirements on automobile owners to clean the environment, they can surely find the resolve to place controls on chemical pollution from farms.

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