By land, sea and air, they hunt for signs of recovery in Chesapeake Bay -- and hope that Congress does not impede the search.
Clad in a worn wet suit, Robert J. Orth jumps off a boat and dives to look for dwindling underwater grass off Virginia's Stingray Point, so named because centuries ago Capt. John Smith received a painful introduction there to life in the bay.
Some 500 feet above the Chesapeake, in a 42-year-old plane crammed with instruments, Lawrence W. Harding Jr. scans the water's surface for glints of color that could spell life or death for fish and crabs this summer.
Meanwhile, on terra firma at her new laboratory beside the Patuxent River, Cynthia C. Gilmour peers at a computer display of a drop of water. It teems with bacteria -- suspected accomplices in the bay's ecological suffocation.
These Chesapeake scientists and others share a quest: to help the bay recover from the nutrient pollution that produces vast "dead zones" where marine animals cannot survive, for lack of dissolved oxygen.
Always in the vanguard of the 11 1/2 -year-old restoration effort, scientists have identified key villains such as nitrogen and helped set priorities for cleanup spending, which exceeds $1 billion so far.
But a new conservative Congress, intent on shrinking the federal government, is squeezing bay science in the process -- and also the follow-up restoration.
Environmental programs and science have endured and grown over the years, with staunch support from a Democratic-controlled Congress. But a political sea change has swept over Capitol Hill in Washington, bringing with it a new majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats determined to balance the federal budget and rein in overweening regulators.
"Indeed, if the election last November was about anything, it was about our reforming government control, top-down government regulations," said Rep. Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who steered a sweeping revision of the federal Clean Water Act through the House in May. During the floor debate, Mr. Shuster declared that federal efforts to clean up polluted waterways was "one of the areas crying out for reform."
Environmentalists and Maryland's governor contend that many of the changes approved or pending in Congress go too far.
"There is an assault on environmental protection that I haven't see in 20 years here," said William C. Baker, president of the
Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "I don't think yet that people perceive the threat to the bay that is there."
He considers it ironic that Congress is jeopardizing the cleanup, since many lawmakers make the short trip from Washington to enjoy the Chesapeake. "It's ignorance, not intention, that causes [environmental] declines," he said.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he fears that deep cuts in federal spending could delay the cleanup of nutrient pollution into the next decade. "With the loss of money, we may struggle through," he said.
But the proposed relaxation of federal environmental laws worries him far more, Mr. Glendening said. Of particular concern are measures that would open up many wetlands to development and require government compensation if regulations lower property values.
A large amount of land "will be built on and paved over," the governor said. "How do we protect the bay under those conditions?"
No one connected with the restoration contends that Congress has made it a specific target. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want to preserve the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, the principal federal entity of the bay cleanup project.
But just as a net draws strength from all strands, the cleanup gets help from many federal sources. The EPA bay program receives $22 million a year, and other federal agencies provide an additional $16 million. The bay also benefits from general environmental spending by the government, totaling $300 million the Chesapeake region.
That safety net is being tested this summer by strong currents on Capitol Hill:
* The drive to balance the federal budget, requiring nearly $900 ++ billion in reduced spending for domestic programs during the next seven years.
* The push for regulatory relief for landowners, business and municipalities.
* The reduction of government support for "applied" science that benefits commercial interests, such as the seafood industry.
"We've been putting [too much] money into 'corporate welfare' as opposed to basic science," said a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Science Committee.
Science is scout, monitor
Dr. Orth's work on submerged grasses shows the importance of bay research, not only in guiding the restoration effort but in measuring progress.
Two primary goals of the cleanup are: reducing nutrient pollution -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- 40 percent by the year 2000, with 1985 as the baseline, and restoring underwater vegetation to 114,000 acres by 2005, from the 38,000 acres recorded in 1984.
Success is not assured. For example, phosphorus levels have come down, but nitrogen concentrations remain high. And the restoration moves in a zigzag pattern -- as Dr. Orth can attest.
Called "J. J." by his friends, the energetic 47-year-old biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) tracks the fitful recovery of the grasses and documents their importance as aquatic nurseries and cafeterias for blue crabs and finfish.
Once so thick that they often fouled the propellers of pleasure boats, the grass beds suddenly began to disappear in the 1970s. As the bay cleanup proceeded in the 1980s, the vegetation reappeared, covering 73,000 acres by 1993.
But the steady recovery stumbled last year. Initially, the decline of 12 percent throughout the bay was blamed on two years of unusually wet weather, which choked the waters with an extra dose of mud and nutrients washed off the land.
This year has been drier, but Dr. Orth, midway through his annual bay-wide survey of grasses, said he has found little good news so far. He is mystified and disappointed.
For example, a bed on the Piankatank River had flourished after he and other Virginia scientists replanted it nearly a decade ago. But the vegetation vanished in the past two years, for no apparent reason. The water quality seemed to be fine. Meanwhile, grass beds have reappeared unexpectedly in some long-barren areas of the upper bay, notably in the Severn River near Annapolis.
Such developments cause Dr. Orth to question whether vegetation can be restored through human actions, or whether it depends on gradual improvement of water quality and the vagaries of nature.
"There may be, and probably are, lots of elements of the equation we don't have data for," he said. "The only thing that's going to save the bay is good science."
'Green' rules tie up developer
In Maryland and across the country, many business people believe that complex environmental regulations tie their hands. For example, developer L. Earl Armiger points to a wet spot behind an apartment complex he's building in Howard County.
No bigger than a kiddie pool and far from any stream or pond, the grassy patch was created by a previous developer's grading of the site, said Mr. Armiger, president of Orchard Development Corp. of Ellicott City.
Yet wetlands regulators kept him waiting nearly two years for a permit to build around it, he said. "What is this doing to protect the Chesapeake Bay, this little place?" he asked.
Mr. Armiger said he loves the bay and wants to help save it. But he also hopes Congress will restore some balance to regulations.
Many state officials also contend that decisions about environmental protection should be made in state capitals and county seats, not in Washington.
"I think that people are beginning to understand that they need to take individual action (to clean up the bay)," Becky Norton Dunlop, Virginia's natural resources secretary, said recently. "We don't want EPA officials coming in and making pronouncements about how Virginians aren't taking care of their rivers."
Many state officials, farmers, developers and industry leaders say the most effective environmental cleanup comes with the least regulation, and supporters of the Chesapeake Bay Program say it fits that description. It is a voluntary alliance of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
The federal government serves as coordinator, cementing the alliance and keeping it on track with funds for research and monitoring.
"That's the magic chemistry" of the cleanup, said Donald F. Boesch, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies.
Dr. Boesch said his center's three laboratories, two of them focused on the bay, get nearly $12 million for research from the federal government, more than they receive from the state.
He pointed out that grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), through its Sea Grant program, helped establish the connection between nutrient pollution and the oxygen problem in the bay.
That linkage, affecting much of the Chesapeake during warm weather, is what drives the work of Dr. Harding, 45, an ecologist at Maryland's Horn Point Environmental Laboratory, and Dr. Gilmour, 36, a microbial ecologist at the Academy of Natural Sciences laboratory near St. Leonard. The academy is a private, Philadelphia-based organization.
Chesapeake scientists are used to some uncertainty about funding, because the cleanup always has relied on the will of Congress and the states. But the project nonetheless attracts top talent, since research on the vast, complex ecosystem is on the leading edge of environmental science.
Dr. Harding takes the long view, from the air, while Dr. Gilmour uses a microscope to inspect the waters.
Airborne sensors detect algae
In the cramped deHavilland Beaver, a rugged bush plane designed during World War II and owned by VIMS, Dr. Harding uses advanced sensors to look for signs that the main bay is recovering from its overdose of nutrients.
Poking out of a hole in the bottom of the aircraft, the sensors pick up subtle shadings of color in the murky water below, indicating the presence of chlorophyll, the substance plants use to convert sunlight to energy. That chlorophyll helps him spot algae "blooms," massive growths of microscopic plants that deprive the water of life-giving sunlight and oxygen.
In his office, Dr. Harding uses a computer to translate the sensor readings into splashy color portraits of the bay. Splotches of blue and green indicate relatively good water quality, with only modest algae concentrations, while bright patches of yellow, orange and red show where algae growth has run wild.
For years, scientists have gone out on the bay to monitor its health, collecting water samples from a fleet of research vessels several times a year. That type of monitoring is essential, but boats can miss patchy blooms that die and disappear in a matter of days.
Flying from Newport News, Va., to Baltimore and back, once or twice a week in spring and summer, Dr. Harding has been able to get a more comprehensive, up-to-date picture. "It's given us a whole new view of the variability in the bay," he said.
After five years of aerial scans, it's still too early to tell if the bay is improving, Dr. Harding said.
Later this year, he hopes to get an even better view of the Chesapeake -- from outer space. NASA plans to launch a water-reading satellite that should allow scientists to track chlorophyll almost daily.
Bacteria in nutrient picture
With the Patuxent River as her laboratory, Dr. Gilmour monitors returns from a massive experiment on nitrogen.
This is the first Chesapeake tributary to have its sewage treatment plants upgraded to remove the nutrient, and Dr. Gilmour and her academy colleagues look for signs of improvement in the river.
But water-borne bacteria signal a possible complication in the seemingly simple calculus of the bay cleanup. They are not disease-causing germs, just the natural bacteria that recycle all living things, through the process we know as "decay."
The Patuxent is brimming with billions and billions of bacteria, Dr. Gilmour said, and they help create "dead zones" in the water, just as algae do. Bacteria consume the dissolved oxygen in water as they busily ingest the nutrients in decaying algae and other organic matter, and at very high concentrations actually cloud the water.
"The amount of bacterial growth out there is just phenomenal," she said. At times, the bacteria outnumber the algae.
Actually, bacteria could be a plus or a minus for the river's recovery, Dr. Gilmour explained. They may help by out-competing algae for declining levels of nutrients.
Or bacteria may hurt if, as some scientists believe, they have helped alter the river's "food web," reducing the available food supply for small marine animals and fish. If that theory holds, restoration of the Patuxent may be harder than previously believed.
From water samples collected every two weeks by a state research vessel, she and other scientists use powerful microscopes to manually count and identify the number and types of bacteria. The researchers then use sophisticated computer technology to calculate the "biomass" or volume of those bacteria and relate it to the flow of nutrients into the river.
In two years of study, Dr. Gilmour has found some evidence to support the theory that bacteria may contribute to the bay's ills. While water quality is improving in some lower stretches of the river, there is little recovery so far in upper reaches, where bacteria levels are high.
To clean up the Patuxent -- and possibly the rest of the bay -- it may be necessary to reduce not just nitrogen but other organic matter on which bacteria feed, Dr. Gilmour said. That could require additional upgrades of sewage treatment plants, and extra cost.
But more research on bacteria is needed, and it could take years, she added.
Recalling stress of 1980s
Given the news out of Washington, Chesapeake scientists worry that the tide may be ebbing for their work, and for other government-funded research. "This is the scariest time for environmental scientists since the early days of Reagan," said Dr. Gilmour.
She recalled how during Ronald Reagan's first term (1981-1984), his administration tried to slash federal funding for scientific research. Congress blocked those cuts, but this time is wielding the knife.
On June 29 the Republican-led Congress formally approved its seven-year blueprint for balancing the budget, cutting taxes and reducing spending by $894 billion. Many of the budget cuts would come from Medicare, Medicaid and social welfare programs. But the plan also would dismantle the Commerce Department, home of NOAA and Sea Grant, and trim $7 billion from science, energy, environment and natural resources programs.
The budget blueprint is a nonbinding outline, and appropriations bills must fill in the details on spending. All differences between congressional committees -- and between the houses -- must be resolved, and reductions made final, before Oct. 1, the deadline for fiscal 1996.
Programs that so far have dodged the chopping block are hoping for the best.
"The fat lady hasn't sung yet," said Christopher F. D'Elia, Maryland director of the Sea Grant program. It had seemed doomed at the committee level but may emerge in fairly good shape, he said -- at least until next year's budget-cutting battle.
But the overall outlook for federally funded research remains "very very shaky," Mr. D'Elia said.
"We shouldn't leave this deficit for future generations to deal with," said Dr. Boesch of the University of Maryland, acknowledging the need to rein in federal spending. "On the other hand, if we don't make an investment in research, we'll be leaving an environmental deficit for future generations."
"The scientific opportunities are enormous," he added. "The need to know is enormous."
ON CAPITOL HILL: ISLANDS IN A STREAM
Pressures in Congress for a balanced budget, regulatory relief and limits on science funding could jolt many federal components of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. The outlook:
* Breakup of NOAA: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pays for fisheries and environmental research. But its parent, the Commerce Department, is targeted for elimination. Parts of NOAA would survive but with reduced budgets.
Status: Endorsed in principle by both houses as part of their compromise budget blueprint; actual cuts pending.
* Shrinking of Sea Grant: Many bay scientists doing work on crabs, underwater grasses and nutrient pollution rely on this NOAA program, which expects budget reductions.
Status: A House panel has recommended a 33 percent budget cut, while another House committee wants no cuts.
* Dropping two commissions: The Potomac and Susquehanna river commissions are interstate groups that help coordinate nutrient reductions and fisheries restoration in the bay's two largest tributaries.
Status: A House committee has proposed eliminating federal funding for all such commissions.
* Limits on EPA: The Environmental Protection Agency faces budget cuts of 10 percent to 30 percent, plus restrictions on spending for enforcement of auto-emission rules and wetlands regulations.
Status: Endorsed in the compromise budget resolution; actual cuts pending.
* Regulatory changes: Legislation being pushed by the Republican leadership would overhaul the federal regulatory system, reopening thousands of health and environmental rules to review and requiring the government to justify them with cost-benefit analyses.
Status: passed by the House; pending in the Senate.
* Water revisions: The proposed new Clean Water Act would remove protection for many nontidal wetlands, which filter out nutrient pollution, and would ease requirements for reducing nutrients in farm and storm water runoff.
Passed by the House; pending in the Senate. The White House has pledged to veto the House version.
* Surgery at Interior: That department expects: elimination or reduction of its National Biological Service, which identifies rare plants and animals; cuts in a National Park Service program that preserves shoreline against development; and reduction of the Geological Survey, which helps monitor water pollution.
Status: In the budget blueprint; actual cuts pending.
* Property rights push: The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the Endangered Species Act is likely to increase pressure in Congress to limit federal regulation of private lands.
Status: The House has approved a bill requiring government to compensate landowners if environmental rules reduce property values; pending in the Senate. Both houses are weighing a major reduction in federal power to protect endangered species.