The Chesapeake Bay ranks among the most polluted estuaries in the nation, and conditions are expected to worsen as the area's population grows, according to a report released yesterday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The study looked at pollution from nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, in five regions in the country and concluded that the Mid-Atlantic region, which stretches from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake, was the most impaired. More than one-third of its estuaries register more pollution now than they did in the 1990s.
"We're concerned about the Chesapeake Bay. We really see it as a mixed bag," said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. "We see progress is not on par with what we would like it to be."
The report, unveiled yesterday at a Washington news conference, had little good news. The Gulf of Mexico, long the site of one of the world's largest dead zones - where the water contains so little oxygen that few creatures can live - was found to have large amounts of algae. Coastal waters in the South Atlantic from North Carolina to Florida also have algae and low levels of oxygen. And even though little information was available for the Pacific coast, NOAA researchers determined that estuaries in Washington and Central California had low oxygen and too much chlorophyll, a sign that algae is present.
The bright spot in the research was Tampa Bay, which lost half its underwater grasses between the 1950s and the 1980s but has made a significant turnaround in recent years, according Suzanne Bricker, the study's lead author. Bricker said Tampa Bay officials pushed for upgrades at wastewater treatment plants and regulated storm water flowing into the bay, resulting in the highest sea grass acreage now since 1950.
"I wish we had more positive examples like that, but I think Tampa Bay shows it can be done," said Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science.
The two main sources of pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay are sewage treatment plants and farms. While sewage upgrades improve water quality relatively quickly, nutrients from farm fertilizer can take years to eradicate because they linger in the ground for a long time before seeping into the bay.
Farmers and environmentalists have recently been pushing for more funding to help farmers adopt conservation practices that help decrease pollution. A version of the farm bill, which passed the House last week and is now heading for the Senate, includes $212.5 million for programs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Critics of the bill, though, say it also includes production subsidies that could undermine the environmental benefits of the conservation practices the bill encourages.
"We know farm bill programs are making a difference, but it will take time," said Mark Rey, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The good news today is that we're making significant progress. The bad news is that it's going to take a while to see it."
News that the bay is in bad shape compared with the nation's other estuaries was not a surprise to Boesch, who has been critical of the Bush administration's slow progress in cleaning up both the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. But Boesch said he was encouraged to see top officials from NOAA, the USDA and the EPA showing up at the news conference to voice their concern.
"This gives me renewed hope that our government can work together to address this recalcitrant problem," he said.
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