“Save the Bay” has been a mantra in Maryland for decades. Many initiatives have been tried over that time to improve the quality of the Chesapeake Bay’s environment. Some have been successful and some less so, but the trajectory has been in the right direction. These efforts continue and some of the most far-reaching proposals are evolving around us right now.
The progress is that pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay has been reduced by approximately 40 percent since 1985. This has occurred through improvement to farming practices, improvement to the operation of sewage treatment plants, and more stringent regulations on control of drainage runoff, primarily from development and construction sites. Even with this, more improvement has been deemed necessary, and the State of Maryland and the Environmental Protection Agency have developed a program, referred to as the Watershed Implementation Plan or WIP that calls for an additional 20 percent reduction in pollutants by 2025. As part of this program the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that the Bay can accept and still maintain a healthy ecology has been modeled and reduction in these nutrient loads is how the program success is measured.
The sources of these pollutants are agriculture, sewage treatment plants, septic systems and sediment runoff. Evidence of legislative and regulatory changes to reduce these pollutants can be seen and felt all around us. Grass buffers are being maintained around streams in farm fields and winter cover crops are more common than in the past. Many sewage treatment plants have been upgraded, largely paid for by the Bay Restoration Fund, the recipient of the “Flush Tax” money that we all pay, which was recently increased. Silt fences and other sediment control measures are part of all construction sites and permanent stormwater control devices – ponds, swales and bio-detention pools – are part of all new communities and commercial parks.
Other regulations are in the works and are in the news. Senate Bill 236, the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, better known as the “Septic Bill,” was passed in 2012. This legislation requires local jurisdictions to do extensive rural planning and requires all new septic systems to use the “Best Available Technology” in their design to reduce nutrients. Also passed in 2012 was House Bill 987, which requires 10 local jurisdictions, including Baltimore County and City and Harford County, to create a Stormwater Remediation Fee to be paid for by landowners and have it in place by July 1, 2013. This Fund will help to pay for stormwater control projects that are required of the Counties as part of the WIP pollution reduction programs. Also, the Maryland Department of the Environment is working to write new regulations on land development that require new building projects to reduce nutrient discharges from a property below what is discharged pre-development. If this cannot be accomplished on site, then offsite reductions must be identified to “offset” the increases – essentially resulting in a “Cap and Trade” program for pollutants. These “Accounting for Growth” regulations are being negotiated now and are scheduled to be in place by Dec. 31, 2013.
Needless to say, these efforts will be expensive and many provisions are controversial. Lawsuits have been filed to oppose various pieces of the program by environmental advocates on one side, and land rights advocates on the other. Questions have been raised pertaining to Maryland’s approach to meeting the TMDL requirements relative to our surrounding states, which are part of the program as well. Is Maryland going too far or are the other states not going far enough? Questions have also been raised about whether some of the regulations are drifting away from the focus on Bay water quality and into more of a “Smart Growth” arena. The “Septic Bill” combined with Plan Maryland, a statewide planning and land use guideline prepared by the Maryland Department of Planning, is called a “War on Rural Maryland.” This column will attempt to stay up on these and other environmental and land use issues in Maryland as they unfold. Keep your hat on.
This is the first of a regularly recurring column by Craig A. Ward on the environment and land use in Maryland. Ward is a Registered Professional Engineer and Certified Planner and is the President of Frederick Ward Associates, a civil engineering and architectural design firm in Bel Air. Ward has been involved in State and local land use and environmental policy and design for over 25 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.