The cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, which President Clinton will highlight today in a visit to Havre de Grace, may be jeopardized by possible federal spending cuts and easing of environmental laws, scientists and environmental officials say.
Considered a national model for restoring a degraded coastal water body, the 12-year-old cleanup campaign has halted the bay's decline and reversed the loss of underwater grasses that provide habitat for crabs and fish.
But 70 percent to 80 percent of Maryland's remaining wetlands, which soak up pollutants and shelter wildlife around the bay, would be opened up to development if changes that Congress is considering in the federal Clean Water Act become law, said Cecily Majerus, bay program coordinator for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The bill also would give states freedom to ease federal requirements for treating sewage, industrial waste and polluted runoff from farms and streets. Those changes would undermine the bay restoration if neighboring states chose to relax their cleanup requirements, critics say.
"The basic federal framework on which the bay program is built is undermined by the bill," said Robert Perciasepe, assistant Environmental Protection Agency administrator for water.
Mr. Perciasepe was Maryland's environment secretary before going to the EPA in 1993.
The bill could allow industry and communities to increase their discharges of pollutants into streams and coastal waters. Easing control of polluted runoff from farms, streets and highways could harm the bay restoration because the runoff is a major source of pollution in the bay.
The clean water bill changes, approved earlier this month by a House committee, would give states more leeway in deciding how to clean up water pollution, a move welcomed by state officials like Environment Secretary Jane T. Nishida.
It also would authorize a 50 percent increase in federal funds for pollution cleanup. The state could expect up to $65.6 million, more than twice the $29 million it received this year, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
But the promise of more money for cleanup seems unlikely to be fulfilled, officials say, since Congress plans to make deep slashes in federal spending this year in an effort to balance the budget. EPA officials already have warned bay states to brace for a reduction of 20 percent to 30 percent in the $21 million now spent each year by the agency on the bay restoration effort.
Those funds represent only a fraction of what Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington spend on the bay
restoration, but they are vital to ensure that the states work together, officials say. Those funds underwrite the states' monitoring of water quality in the bay, bay-related research and installation of pollution controls on farmland.
Such a cut would be "shortsighted," said Donald F. Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Estuarine and Environmental Studies. Without ongoing monitoring of water quality, it would be impossible to tell if the bay cleanup is working.
Officials say, however, that the biggest threat to the bay restoration effort comes from the proposed change in wetlands regulation, which has been the focus of controversy for the past six years.
Once reviled as mosquito-infested swamps, wetlands have come to be recognized by scientists for their value in filtering out water pollution, controlling floods and providing food and shelter to fish and wildlife. The law now prohibits filling or draining wetlands without government permits, and requires creation of new wetlands to make up for any that are destroyed by development.
Prompted by complaints from farmers, developers and local officials about federal restrictions on their land, the House committee approved a clean water bill that would sharply narrow the definition of a wetland. It also would require government to classify wetlands according to their ecological value and to compensate landowners whose property loses value because of development restrictions.
The House bill would continue regulation only of the "wettest" of wetlands, according to John Meagher, chief of wetlands for EPA. Lands that are damp for only a short time in spring also help filter out pollution and provide habitat for spawning frogs and other wildlife, but many no longer would be protected by the new bill, he said.
"We are not going to be losing wetlands," counters Margaret Ann Reigle, chairwoman of the Fairness to Land Owners Committee, a group based in Cambridge that has pushed for changes in federal regulation of wetlands. "There will be deregulation of dry land when this passes."
"Wetlands are a key to the resilience of the bay," said Ann Powers, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "You can't redefine them and pretend they aren't important and don't exist. . . . By destroying wetlands, you're going to have dirtier streams [and] the creeks and streams are crucial to the health of the bay."
"The productivity of the bay is highly dependent on this filtration system that nature has created over the past 10,000 years," agreed Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. Mr. Gilchrest, a Republican whose district straddles the bay, voted against the new clean water bill largely because of the proposed changes in wetlands regulation.
He argued that Congress should wait for a study of wetlands it requested of the National Academy of Sciences three years ago. That study is due early next month.