Bay campaign flags after decade of success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ten years after it began in an outpouring of concern and enthusiasm, the campaign to restore the Chesapeake Bay shows signs of faltering just as it starts to make headway.

Thanks to an environmental rescue effort that has cost roughly $1.5 billion, environmentalists no longer regard the bay as dying.

But the long-term prognosis is uncertain at best for reversing decades of pollution and abuse that degraded the nation's largest and richest estuary, say scientists, environmentalists, and federal and state officials.

Cleaning up the bay's troubled waters will cost hundreds of millions more, they say, and will require major changes in farming and development at a time that financial and political support for any new environmental programs appears to be shaky.

Maryland officials insist that the bay restoration is on track, at least in this state.

"Sometimes it takes a little longer than we'd like, because we're cutting new ground. But we're getting there," said Cecily Majerus, bay program coordinator for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

But many others fear that the effort -- often held up as a model for restoring other coastal waters -- may be losing momentum just when it needs renewed energy. Maryland officials concede that state funding for bay restoration has been pared by one-third in the past three years.

"There have been some good signs of a turnaround," said Dr. William C. Boicourt, an oceanographer at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory. "But there's a very big temptation, when progress has been shown, to declare victory and stop."

heartened was Mr. Schaefer by signs of the bay's comeback that he declared the job at least halfway finished this year.

However, others say the gains made so far pale in comparison to the task ahead.

"The patient is stabilized, but the recovery process is just beginning," said William Matuszeski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's bay program office in Annapolis. "There are as many down indicators as there are up," he added.

Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on improving sewage treatment in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., have made the water cleaner in some of the bay's rivers, notably the Potomac and Patuxent.

As a result, underwater grasses, which almost disappeared in the mid-1980s, are making a comeback in some parts of the Chesapeake, providing food and shelter for fish and waterfowl.

And rockfish, the bay's most highly prized catch, have rebounded from the overfishing that threatened to wipe them out a decade ago.

But harvests of oysters, once the backbone of the bay's seafood industry, remain at all-time lows because of disease and destruction of their habitat.

Crabs, the remaining money catch, remain vulnerable to overharvesting, though Maryland and Virginia are moving to impose new restrictions. And toxic pollution continues to degrade the waters in Baltimore, Norfolk and other points.

Even more troubling, experts say, is the realization that the environmental gains made in the past decade were relatively easy compared with the daunting task of trying to curb polluted runoff from nearly every farm and community in the 64,000 square miles of the bay's watershed.

'Heavy lifting' ahead

"The heavy lifting, I think, is still ahead of us," Mr. Matuszeski said. He noted that the EPA's latest computer studies indicate that the states will have to boost their efforts five- to eight-fold to control runoff from farms and development.

Initiatives are needed at a time when "people are not real comfortable with how government is doing things and not willing to pay more money," said Frances Flanigan, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, an EPA-backed coalition of environmentalists, business representatives and government officials.

"The novelty of saving the bay may have worn off," said Joseph Maroon, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the environmental group based in Annapolis.

"It's one thing to rally support around cleaning up sewage treatment plants," Mr. Maroon said. "Now we're dealing with how people [use] their own land or their boats. That's where the rub comes in."

Leadership changes

Another problem is the upheaval in political leadership that will occur in the bay region next year. A new Republican governor will take office in Virginia next month, and Mr. Schaefer and Pennsylvania's Gov. Robert P. Casey, both Democrats, will retire from office at the end of 1994. Some fear the turnover will slow or even set back the restoration effort.

Mr. Schaefer, chairman of the council directing the cleanup, acknowledged in September that the effort is in danger of losing steam. He said the campaign needs to be reinvigorated by enlisting new people and trying new ideas.

But on the political front, the new blood so far shows no great warmth for the Chesapeake. Virginia's governor-elect, George Allen, who virtually ignored the bay during his campaign, said last week that "concern for the environment should not come at the expense of people, their property and jobs."

"Backtracking is the atmosphere at this point," Virginia Del. Tayloe Murphy, a Democrat, lamented at a recent Chesapeake Bay Commission meeting. "The bay program is on the defensive."

Public concern for the bay outweighed any worries about jobs and the economy when the multistate restoration effort was launched officially in December 1983.

Nearly 1,000 people jammed into a conference room in Alexandria, Va., for three days that month to dissect the bay's ills, which had been detailed that year by a massive EPA study. It said the bay was "an ecosystem in decline," and the most pressing problem was an overdose of nutrients.

Algae blooms

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus -- from municipal wastewater, farm and suburban runoff, and air pollution -- cause massive algae "blooms" to grow in the bay. The microscopic plants blot out sunlight that underwater grasses need to grow. When the algae die and sink to the bottom, their decay consumes the oxygen in the water that fish need to breathe.

Scientists identified nutrient pollution as a major Chesapeake problem in 1968. But the EPA study, which cost $27.5 million and took six years to produce, proved to be the catalyst for action.

Within three months of the final report's release, the first federal-state agreement to restore the bay was signed at the Alexandria meeting. On the spot, the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania each unveiled plans for new state spending, laws and programs.

"I can remember riding in parades, and the people yelling, 'Save the bay! Save the bay!' " Harry Hughes, then Maryland's governor, recalled recently.

Some present at the beginning say they had doubts then about how long the crusade would last, because it was based on a vague, one-page compact pledging only that the states and federal government would work together to monitor and restore the bay.

Federal largess and public pressure provided the glue.

Besides underwriting the initial study, the EPA has pumped $143 million into the bay program, with much of that funneled to states in the form of matching grants.

The public's support for restoring the bay also has remained strong. Membership in the Bay Foundation swelled from 12,000 in 1983 to 87,000 today.

Stronger pact

Amid continuing concern about the bay, the original restoration agreement was supplanted in 1987 by a more detailed one, signed by a new generation of political leaders that included Mr. Schaefer.

In the new pact, the states and the federal government made sweeping pledges to curb pollution, halt wetlands losses, control overfishing and reduce the harmful impact of population growth and development.

The cornerstone, though, was a specific pledge to reduce the nutrients flowing into the bay 40 percent by the year 2000. Computer studies indicated that a cleanup of that magnitude would raise dissolved oxygen levels enough to restore fish and shellfish to the bay's deeper waters.

With the states and federal government pouring more than $300 million a year into the effort, the cleanup has begun to show results. The amount of phosphorus reaching the bay has been reduced by 16 percent since 1985, according to EPA estimates.

There has been no comparable bay-wide reduction in nitrogen, the other major nutrient.

But the upper Potomac, where cleanup efforts began in the 1960s, has made a dramatic comeback. And parts of the Patuxent are beginning to show new life after nitrogen was removed from municipal wastewater.

Most of the water-quality improvements have come from upgrading sewage treatment plants to remove phosphorus and nitrogen.

Such overhauls are expensive. More than $200 million in federal and state funds is being pumped into Baltimore's Back River treatment plant.

Making further progress, however, will require curbing polluted runoff from farm fields, livestock lots and suburban development, scientists say. Those problems can only be cured through changing habits, they say, rather than with some technological "fix."

The states, meanwhile, have pledged to restore underwater grasses. The grasses that once blanketed the bay bottom dTC dwindled to just 35,000 acres a decade ago. As the water has begun to clear up, the grasses have returned to cover about 70,000 acres now.

The goal: 114,000 acres by the year 2005.

Shift in focus

The cleanup effort also has shifted its focus upstream, into the bay's river tributaries. That change, made last year, was hailed by scientists and environmentalists because most fish spawn in the rivers.

But restoring every river is more complicated than cleaning up the bay, and officials are struggling to complete strategies for restoring each major river system.

"We know what we need to do, but we don't know how we're going to make it happen," said Keith Buttleman, Virginia's deputy secretary of environmental quality.

"Money is at the core of the problem," Pennsylvania state Rep. Jeffrey Coy, the bay commission's chairman, said recently. "Money is scarce these days, and hundreds of worthy causes are competing for fewer available dollars."

Maryland has been the spending leader, pouring nearly $1 billion alone into the bay in the last decade. The bulk of that went to upgrade sewage treatment plants.

No other state comes close. Virginia, by comparison, says it has spent $325 million. Pennsylvania, which has focused on curbing farm runoff, has put up only about $21 million.

As some officials point out, all the federal and state money spent on the bay in the last 10 years would not buy even one B-2 Stealth bomber. The current annual spending would pay for rebuilding fewer than 40 miles of four-lane interstate highway a year.

Funds dwindling

But as with all other government programs, funding for the Chesapeake restoration appears to be leveling off or dwindling just as experts see the need for hundreds of millions more.

In the last three years, Maryland's bay-related spending has been slashed from a peak of $161 million in 1990-1991 to about $106 million this year -- only a little more than was spent five years ago. And there is little prospect for restoring those cuts.

Preliminary estimates of the costs of restoring Maryland's rivers have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. State officials refuse to release the figures, apparently fearful that the public will balk.

"The numbers are too horrifying even to mention," said one official.

Controlling runoff from farmland and development need not be as costly as upgrading wastewater treatment plants, officials note. But Mr. Matuszeski of the EPA said the states' current pace for curbing runoff is "evidently not sufficient" to meet the end-of-decade deadline for reducing nutrient pollution.

"We have made great strides," said Maryland state Sen. Gerald Winegrad, a Democrat from Anne Arundel County. "But there has been no progress at all in population growth and development.

L "What's it going to take?" he asked. "Some bay catastrophe?"

"If we really want to [restore the bay]," said Ann Pesiri Swanson, bay commission director, "then the public needs to hunker down and move over and make some more sacrifices. Because we can't do it with business as usual, and we can't do it with the current array of programs."

RESTORING AN ECOSYSTEM

Reducing nutrient pollution, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, 40 percent remains the leading goal of the Chesapeake Bay Program. The substances reach the Chesapeak in discharges from sewage plants, runoff from farm fields and lawns and in fallout from car exhaust pipes and power plant smokestacks.

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