Inch by inch, nautical mile by nautical mile, the Chesapeake Bay is getting cleaned up. But ridding the nation's largest estuary of 300 years of pollution is a slow process that could be getting slower. Five years after a report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) galvanized public and regional government support for a cleanup effort, regional authorities have agreed on only one clear target: a 40 percent reduction in the amount of nutrients present in the bay by the year 2000. But the strategy for meeting this goal - the funds and legislation needed - has not yet been put into effect.
Other problems - toxics, conventional waste, and the breakneck rate of development in the bay watershed - are being studied. But specific cleanup targets and strategies to control growth are still months, if not years, from implementation.
Meanwhile, the livelihood of watermen in the bay region is threatened as the populations of fish and seafood plummet. According to Maryland officials, in 1961, fishermen brought more than 5 million pounds of striped bass into state docks. In 1986, they caught just under 8,000 pounds. More than 20 million pounds of oysters were harvested in Maryland in 1973. In 1986, just under 8 million pounds were brought in.
In addition, the bay's value as a recreation area is in doubt. Sport fishing has been hurt by bay contamination just as commercial fishing has. Hunting and trapping are affected by decreasing populations of waterfowl and small mammals. So far, though, swimming and watersports remain largely unaffected.
Even so, the effort to ``Save the Bay,'' as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has sloganized it for the last 22 years, has had some recent successes. In 1984, Maryland passed the Critical Areas Act - a law designed to severely limit growth and construction within 1,000 feet of the bay shoreline statewide. This year, the Vir-ginia legislature passed the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act - requiring the state to draw up guidelines for local land use and pollution control planning. Both states have passed laws banning the sale of laundry detergents with phosphates.
The states have shown considerable financial commitment to the project. Since July 1984, Maryland has spent $297 million on the bay cleanup. Virginia has spent about $100 million for the same period and Pennsylvania has spent $22 million. In the last month, Maryland has pledged another $312 million for its program to reduce the flow of nutrients to the bay. But the figures indicate that the financial burden has just begun. By one estimate, the cost of the nutrient cleanup alone will exceed $1 billion.
The cleanup is complicated by the vastness of the Chesapeake watershed and conflicting economic and ecological interests in neighboring jurisdictions. Technically, only the states of Maryland and Virginia border the 193-mile long Bay. However, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the District of Columbia have rivers and land areas that drain into the bay - supplying it with countless gallons of agricultural, industrial, and municipal waste.
While officials from all the jurisdictions (except Delaware) have signed agreements committing themselves to protect the bay's living resources, improve water quality, and better manage population and development in the bay region, the closer the groups get to hammering out the details to implement the commitments, the more sluggish the cleanup effort becomes. ``This is a politically difficult thing,'' says Dr. Eugene Cronin, a retired marine biologist active in bay conservation efforts since 1940. The states move at different rates.''
Despite their differences, though, the states have succeeded in constructing the forums necessary to discuss the bay cleanup. Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have formed the Chesapeake Bay Commission - an authority charged with building interstate cooperation on the cleanup effort. The governors of those states, as well as the mayor of the District of Columbia and the EPA administrator, have signed two Chesapeake Bay Agreements (in 1983 and 1987) - pledging support for a long-term cleanup effort. And various state authorities have apparently established good working relationships.
``We have never seen anywhere in the country this level of interstate cooperation,'' says Ann Pesiri Swanson, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. ``Technical people in all [the state] governments know one another by first names.''
But most observers of bay issues concede that all the familiarity won't necessarily save the Chesapeake.
``People are used to sitting down across a table and looking at one another and finding out how much they can get and how much they will have to give,'' says Ann Powers, vice-president and general counsel of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit educational and lobbying group. But now, she says, as the process comes to dividing responsibility and deciding who will actually make the sacrifices to push the cleanup forward, the hard negotiating begins. ``We're dealing now with all those competing interests.''