The ability of the EPA and other federal agencies to support Chesapeake Bay-related activities will decrease because of anticipated budget cuts, a senior EPA official warned.

Robert Perciasepe, EPA assistant administrator for water, called the Bay Program a "shining light" which serves as a model for other environmental restoration efforts, and said that the EPA would do what it could to shelter the cleanup effort from budget cuts.

"The Chesapeake Bay Program is a high priority" of EPA Administrator Carol Browner, Perciasepe told the Chesapeake Bay Commission at its Jan. 5 meeting. The Bay Program is a state-federal partnership, involving more than 20 federal agencies, as well as the states of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The EPA is the lead federal partner in the cleanup effort.

Still, as of mid-January, the EPA and many agencies that play the biggest roles in the Bay Program -- the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service -- remain without budgets for 1996.

All are expected to receive cuts, with additional reductions likely in future years, said Perciasepe, the former head of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"The net effect of the whole thing will be a diminution on the part of the federal government to participate," Perciasepe said.

After this year's budget situation is resolved, Perciasepe said Browner expected to meet with other department heads in an attempt to manage reductions in a way that minimizes their impact on the Bay.

While Congress and President Clinton reached agreement Jan. 5 temporarily ending a three-week shutdown and putting people back to work, Congress failed to approve operating funds for some agencies, including the EPA, which allows them to incur expenses or pay contractors. "We'll be able to do desk work, but we won't have travel money or any contractor money," Perciasepe said.

Because of a lack of an appropriation, most grants and contracts administered by the Bay Program -- including grants used by the states to help fund Bay restoration activities -- had funding only through February or March, said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Matuszeski said the Bay Program would suffer the greatest damage if there is no appropriation for the agency and it continues to operate under a "continuing resolution" that funds the entire agency at a fraction of last year's level.

A 25 percent cut from the 1995 level is frequently mentioned by congressional leaders. In that case, Matuszeski said, the Bay Program could face across-the-board reductions.

Besides having less money, layoffs in the agency could result in Bay Program staff who have worked on Chesapeake issues for years being "bumped" out of their jobs and replaced by more senior staff from other EPA offices in the Annapolis area.

Even if the Bay Program emerges with full funding, Matuszeski said other activities that benefit the Bay cleanup, from technical support to environmental enforcement, could suffer. "We still rely on a lot of other EPA programs for support, which would be seriously cut," he said.

President Clinton on Dec. 18 vetoed a 1996 EPA appropriations bill that would have funded the Bay Program at its 1995 level of $21 million but would have cut the agency's overall funding from $6.6 billion last year to $5.7 billion. In addition, the bill set funding caps for a variety of categories, including personnel, in the agency.

Perciasepe said the vetoed bill would have forced the EPA to fire 5,000 of its 17,000 employees or furlough the entire work force without pay for 60 days. Still, Perciasepe said, "it's naive to think we're not going to have some cut in the EPA budget."

And while he said the agency would try to protect the Bay Program, "there is going to be some collateral impacts" resulting from the government shutdown and lack of an appropriation.

For example, he said the EPA had been in the process of writing new effluent guidelines for seven types of industries when workers were furloughed and contractors forced to stop working in mid-December.

Effluent guidelines are used by state officials in writing wastewater discharge permits. The new guidelines would reduce pollution discharges nationwide by about 1 billion pounds a year, Perciasepe said.

The guidelines would apply to several industries in the Bay region, including pulp and paper plants, metal finishers and pharmaceuticals.

"These rules, which represent a significant amount of potential pollution reduction, are shut down. All the contractors who are working on it are shut down," Perciasepe said. "Even if we started up tomorrow, these rules are going to be delayed, in some cases perhaps well over a year."

The shutdown and budget impasse halted research at EPA labs. "We're feeding the rats, but we can't do much else," Perciasepe said.

Another casualty of the government shutdown was an effort to protect drinking water from microbial contamination -- an issue that has been of concern since the parasite cryptosporidium contaminated Milwaukee's drinking water in 1993, killing dozens of people and making thousands of others sick.

Perciasepe said the EPA had been working with water companies to begin a yearlong monitoring program needed to gather information so new protection measures could be developed. Water supplies are thought to be most vulnerable during spring runoffs, and the agency had hoped to set up the monitoring and testing program in place by then.

Because of delays caused by the shutdown, Perciasepe said the monitoring program cannot begin this spring. "We're going to have to wait until next year to do the spring testing so we can figure out what to do about cryptosporidium," he said.

Chesapeake Bay Commission member Jim Seif, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the head of EPA Region III during part of the Reagan administration, said Browner and Perciasepe had helped make a "sea change" in the way the agency operated and was now taking a "late hit" from people "who didn't notice it was happening." He said people in both political parties should want to "keep it [EPA] strong."

The Chesapeake Bay Commission is an advisory panel made up of legislators and environmental officials from the Bay states.