The coast isn't clear

For tourists streaming into Ocean City this summer, the coastal bays are easily overlooked. To many they are merely the broad, sparkling waters — glimpsed briefly from the family sedan along U.S. 50 or Route 90, perhaps — that must be crossed on the way to the sandy beaches and rough and tumble of the Atlantic Ocean surf.

But from an ecological standpoint, they provide as valuable a wildlife habitat as any found within their big sister estuary to the west, the Chesapeake Bay. Their sea grass beds are a nursery to dozens of varieties of fish and shellfish, their islands a haven for water birds like the brown pelicans that have made a year-round home here.

And their value to Worcester County tourism is substantial as well. From the marinas and hotels along the waterfront to the commercial fishing and boating they support, the coastal bays account for hundreds of millions of dollars in the local economy and thousands of jobs.

So while the latest environmental report card grade of a C-plus overall might sound acceptable, there is cause for deep concern. Within the report prepared by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science is evidence that the area's most pristine waters in and around Chincoteague Bay to the south are getting much worse.

A decline in dissolved oxygen is likely the result of excess nutrients in the water from such sources as household septic systems and farm runoff. Clams continue to be less prevalent than in years past; scallops haven't been seen in Chincoteague in a half-decade.

While Assateague, Isle of Wight and Assawoman bays saw some signs of improvement in 2009, according to the report, that progress was easily offset by Chincoteague's continued degradation. Yet the coastal bay's plight has drawn far less attention (and far less government investment) then what has been happening in the Chesapeake Bay.

On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed more stringent limits on pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay from the six states in the watershed. They are likely to prove costly and controversial, requiring sewage treatment plants to remove more nutrients, local governments to spend more on managing storm water run off, and the state to adopt stricter curbs on agriculture's use of manure and fertilizer.

But they are precisely what is needed if water quality is to be improved. To continue to do what has been done in the past is a recipe for disaster. Reducing the flow of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Chesapeake demands some degree of sacrifice — but far less than losing Maryland's most cherished natural resource.

Such a serious and regional approach is also needed around the coastal bays, too. Maryland, Virginia and Delaware cannot continue to embrace the kinds of land use practices that have already proven so destructive. Nor can states leave the bays underfunded and overlooked like a carful of tourists anxious to arrive at other places and attend to other causes.

It doesn't take an oil spill to ruin a sensitive coastal bay. The nearby marshes, forests and fertile soils are too attractive a target for development to assume that things will get better (or even stay the same) without greater protections. As last month's report points out, the signs of impending trouble are simply too numerous to ignore.

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