Will we ever finally “Save the Bay”?

Chesapeake Bay viewed from Hart-Miller Island
Chesapeake Bay viewed from Hart-Miller Island

The Chesapeake Bay is an amazing and beautiful place.  The Bay covers an area of 4,479 square miles making it the largest estuary in the United States.  It drains over 64,000 square miles with a watershed that stretches from Virginia to New York including 6 states and the District of Columbia.  An estuary is a body of water where fresh and salt water mix creating a unique ecosystem.  The Chesapeake Bay supports more than 3,600 species of plants, fish, and animals and is home to 29 species of waterfowl.

Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Chesapeake Bay Watershed

The Bay is also surprisingly shallow.  The average depth is 21 feet, but 25% of the Bay is less than 6 feet deep.  The size of the Bay’s watershed combined with its shallow waters make it particularly susceptible to pollution.  For decades environmentalists have chanted “save the bay!” but the policies implemented by state governments have had mixed results at best.  In 2009 the Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the health of the Bay as a “D” for the 10th year in a row (source).

So why is the Bay so hard to clean up? 

Osprey spotted over the Chesapeake Bay
Osprey spotted over the Chesapeake Bay

To understand the answer you have to first understand that there are, generally speaking, two major types of pollution.  The first is called point source pollution and represents single identifiable sources such as heavy industry or sewage treatment plants.  The second is non-point source pollution, which does not have an easily identifiable single source.  This includes runoff from roads, agricultural areas, septic systems, and lawns.  Unlike point source pollution, non-point source pollution cannot be fixed by building a better treatment plant or taking a single corporation to court.  It requires statewide (and often multi-state) regulations on entire industries like real estate development and agriculture.

My home state of Maryland has had some success with curtailing point source pollution, but we’ve struggled with runoff.  New stormwater laws have required on-site treatment of runoff for new construction, but it hasn’t been enough.  This past week I attended an the Annual Environmental Legislative Summit where a conference room in Annapolis was packed with 1,000 people once again chanting “save the bay!”  The impressive list of speakers included Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Dr. Robert Summers, acting Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.  However, it was State Delegate Maggie McIntosh, chair of the Environmental Matters Committee, who laid out the controversial bay clean-up legislation state government would be wrestling with over the next couple years.

Maggie McIntosh
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D)

McIntosh told the crowd that two separate funding sources need to be addressed if we want to see meaningful change in the health of the Bay.  The first, she proposes, is a doubling of the so-called “flush fee,” currently a $30 charge tacked on to all water bills annually.  This fee raises $60 million per year, which is used to upgrade sewage treatment plants, replace failing septic systems, and pay farmers to plant cover crops and take other pollution control actions.  Del. McIntosh would like to see the fee raised to $60 a year (source).

The second funding source proposed by McIntosh is a stormwater restoration fee of approximately $24 a year per connection/septic system.  This fee would raise funds for retrofitting existing infrastructure, which is essential for true bay restoration.

Existing stormwater laws require only new construction and redevelopment to treat stormwater runoff, however, much of the damage done to the bay watershed occurred prior to the creation of these laws.  It began in the 1950s when developers drained and filled wetlands to build suburbs.  Not until the Stormwater Management Act of 2007 were developers required to use best management practices to treat runoff.

In 2010 the legislature attempted to pass the Watershed Protection and Restoration Act but failed.  Instead “emergency regulations” were passed that made it easier for developers to obtain waivers and avoid stormwater management requirements (source and source).  It is unclear if a similar bill will be proposed during the current session, which adjourns April 11, 2011.

One piece of legislation that is on it’s way to Annapolis is Governor O’Malley’s proposal to ban septic tanks in future housing developments.   O’Malley made the announcement during his annual “State of the State” address saying, “We must realize that where we choose to sleep, eat, and live affects our environment and it affects our bay.  There is one area of reducing pollution where, so far, we have totally failed and, in fact, it is actually much worse” (source).

The ban would affect new developments of five or more buildings.  It is expected to face stern opposition from the real estate industry, who still rely on septic systems when developing subdivisions too far away to be connected to regional sewer lines.  Barring a re-introduction of the Watershed Protection and Restoration Act, this could turn out to be the regulation to watch for Chesapeake Bay activists this legislative session.

Want to stay informed about Maryland’s environmental legislation?  Join the Maryland League of Conservation Voters or follow them on facebook.

Also see articles:

McCartney, Robert.  O’Malley’s bold proposals on environment face sizable challengesThe Washington Post.  February 12, 2011.

Wheeler, Tim.  Governor pushes septic development curb. The Baltimore Sun.  February 17, 2011.

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