Region to commit to helping the bay


State and federal leaders plan to commit themselves today to adding 46,000 acres of underwater grasses to the Chesapeake Bay within five years, increasing by tenfold the oyster population and cleansing the water enough to remove the bay and its tidal tributaries from the Environmental Protection Agency's list of "impaired waters."

Chesapeake 2000, the carefully worded bay restoration agreement, is scheduled to be signed today by the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia and EPA administrator Carol M. Browner. It includes many of the provisions of the draft released with great fanfare in December. In some cases, the final agreement is stronger than the draft.

"When we saw the first draft, we were concerned because drafts tend to get whittled away," said Mike Hirschfield of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But we're pretty glad at how this came out."

The original draft "got stronger" as the rewrites continued, said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "Scientists and the public affect the policy. It really did happen. It's very laudable."

The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay tabulated more than 600 responses to the draft plan, many of which called for strengthening the agreement. Witnesses at public hearings called for specific goals that would allow them to measure progress.

"The public said certain sections needed to be made stronger, and they were," Swanson said.

The original draft contained a "commitment to enhance programs that promote preservation." The final draft, the first wholesale rewrite of the 1987 guide to restoration of the bay, contains a "commitment to permanently preserve 20 percent of the land in the watershed from development by 2010."

In addition to restoring oysters - which filter pollutants - and underwater grasses - which provide shelter for young fish and crabs, food for ducks and geese and control erosion - the agreement calls for:

"Harvest targets" as part of a blue crab management plan.

A plan to keep the sediments trapped by the Conowingo Dam near the mouth of the Susquehanna River from reaching the bay.

Freeing the bay of toxins by "reducing or eliminating" contaminants "from all controllable sources."

Expanding public access to the bay.

Cutting the rate of development by 30 percent over the next five years.

Development and land-use disputes threatened to derail the agreement in winter. Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III refused to sign the draft in December because of the land-use language and agreed to sign in May only after it was changed to suit him.

Virginia argued that the original language amounted to a state takeover of land-use controls that should be left to local governments.

It would "commit the governor to do something he couldn't do without the permission of the General Assembly," said Ron Hamm, Virginia's deputy secretary of natural resources. "We think that represented a misunderstanding of how the government of Virginia works, compared to Maryland and Pennsylvania. We went to great pains to explain that to them."

Under Virginia's form of government, counties do not have the authority to adopt tools for managing growth, such as adequate-facilities laws or transferable development rights. Gilmore's administration has opposed efforts to give counties those tools.

The land-use provisions represent the first time the agreement "recognizes the importance of preserving land to the health of the bay," said Swanson, the chief drafter of the agreement.

The agreement, however, lacks any mention of dredging of shipping channels, a contentious issue in Maryland, where the state Port Administration has been under fire for its proposal to dispose of dredge spoil from Baltimore Harbor's approach channels in a trench north of Kent Island.

"When the issue came up, Maryland had been looking at many options," said Sarah Taylor-Rogers, Maryland's secretary of natural resources. "The other states gave Maryland the respect to allow the state to have the flexibility to look at this whole dredging piece."

The call for blue crab harvest targets is likely to lead to reductions in the annual harvest in Maryland and Virginia to preserve the most valuable commercial fishery in the bay.

Bay scientists, who have been saying for years that the blue crab population is teetering on the edge of a crash, are to meet next month to hammer out recommendations for those targets and how to meet them, such as quotas, shorter seasons, larger minimum legal sizes limits on licenses and limits on equipment.

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission also approved yesterday a plan for a crab sanctuary from the spawning grounds at the mouth of the bay to the Maryland border.

The agreement also commits the jurisdictions to a bay or streamside outdoor program for every child who lives in the watershed by 2005.

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