ANNAPOLIS – Maryland officials hope to increase the state’s wetlands acreage by ten percent as part of a new plan to set “benchmarks” that measure environmental progress.
The wetlands target was just one of 42 goals proposed Thursday by the Maryland Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of a new long-term plan.
With hundreds of piecemeal programs addressing drinking water, air quality, wildlife protection and other issues, the goals are the “first step” in setting priorities that will guide environmental and public health programs throughout the state, officials said.
“It is a roadmap to our environmental future,” said Jane Nishida, Maryland environment secretary. “We need to make sure there are targets out there for us to reach.”
The plan, developed by state agencies and the EPA over the last two years, identifies specific goals, including:
* protecting all sources of drinking water from pollution by the year 2002.
* reducing toxic emissions from 1988 levels by 65 percent by 2000.
* reopening 413 miles of the Chesapeake Bay’s tributaries to migrating fish by 2003.
* keeping the number of successfully reproducing pairs of bald eagles at or above 200.
* continually decreasing the amount of hazardous waste generated each year.
The most ambitious part of the plan, state officials said, is a long-term goal to restore 60,000 acres of wetlands in Maryland. In recent years, state and private programs have added about 120 acres of tidal and non-tidal wetlands each year.
Wetlands provide numerous environmental benefits — they help control flooding, improve water quality by filtering nutrients, and offer habitat for diverse fish, birds and wildlife.
Nishida acknowledged that environmental agencies will have to come up with new ideas to reach the wetlands target. The next step is figuring out how to pool different programs and funds to reach the targeted increase.
The state has used a scattershot approach to wetlands protection, based largely on weighing individual permits to build on wetlands. “What we need to do as a state is assess the entire watershed area,” she said.
One strategy might be to identify landowners willing to work with the state to restore wetlands on their own property, officials said.
Nishida’s department also plans to research how different public programs — including Smart Growth, conservation, rural legacy, transportation, Army Corps of Engineers and EPA initiatives — could work together to reach the environmental standards.
Over the next few years, the EPA will start giving the state more flexibility, through block grants, in deciding how to use federal funds.
“The state can move from setting its sights through a telescope to looking through a microscope. It really lets a state pinpoint its priorities,” said Michael McCabe, EPA’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator.
The state has also opened the plan, which is currently just a “first draft,” to public comment. Officials will receive input from citizens, local governments and environmental and business groups until April 18.
Copies of the draft may be obtained by mail by calling 410- 631-4187.
Comments will help shape the final version of the plan, which state agencies and the EPA will use to set priorities for funding.
“We believe everyone has a stake in our environment and, therefore, everyone has a say,” Nishida said.
Dru Schmidt-Perkins of Clean Water Action said the new benchmarks will give citizens and environmental watchdogs a yardstick to measure whether environmental problems are being addressed.
“People want to know, `Is the water clean enough to drink, Is the air healthy to breathe?’ The good side of this is that they’re trying to set clear standards to measure that,” she said. -30-