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A big cleanup

Save the Bay. Now there's a slogan everyone can get behind. That's a good thing, too, because the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland's defining geological feature, has been in need of saving at least since the 1950s and probably well before that.

Now comes the federal government, which is making grants of up to $750,000 available to places like Havre de Grace designed to help local governments like the one in the city pay for reducing pollution entering the bay.

It's a nice idea, but this is one instance where the government isn't spending enough. In all, $4 million is being allocated through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and an organization called the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which has official links to the U.S. Department of Interior, the agency responsible for, among other things, federal parks.

The goal of this grant program is to help reduce what is called the total maximum daily load of pollution entering the bay. Places like Havre de Grace (not to mention the rest of Harford County) are critical in this because the bay is where the city's treated sewage, as well as its storm water runoff, ends up. While the bay is afflicted by a pollution in a variety of forms, one in particular has proven the most harmful over the long haul: nutrient pollution. Nutrient overloads amount to over-fertilization of the bay. Too much fertilizer results in too much algae growing. The algae blooms, dies and rots. The rotting consumes oxygen, a process that can leave vast areas of waterway devoid of this necessity for living things. In extreme cases, fish kills result, but more typically the problem is spread over a large enough area that the environment is maimed rather than killed.

The bay faces substantial challenges related to nutrient pollution, and certainly runoff and sewage treatment in Havre de Grace are among the challenges worth dealing with. Unfortunately, more bang for the buck could be achieved by dealing with some of the more massive sources of nutrient pollution, namely agricultural operations that are relatively far inland. In some cases, these operations are farms that are losing topsoil each time it rains. Programs to prevent this have proven successful in the past not only at preventing pollution, but also at saving farmers money on fertilizer.

It isn't necessarily fair to call other types of agricultural operations farms, at least not in the traditional sense. Increasingly in recent years, large scale animal growing operations that produce huge numbers of hogs, chickens or steers on small parcels of land have become a cornerstone in supplying meat to the American market. In a way, they are models of efficiency, but because they are agricultural, they benefit from rather lax regulation when it comes to runoff and pollution. The result has been something of a stagnation in efforts to reduce agricultural pollution entering the Chesapeake and its tributaries.

Finding ways to make these operations cleaner will be a vital component of any strategy for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Such endeavors no doubt will cost more than a few million dollars, even if they simply involve hiring people to enforce stricter regulation of high-intensity animal growing operations.

It's certainly nice that Havre de Grace has the opportunity to secure as much as $750,000 for a Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, but make no mistake about it, at this moment in the bay's history, such programs will, at best, have a limited impact on the waterway's overall health.

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