The Maryland General Assembly session ended at the stroke of midnight Monday with ringing victories for the Chesapeake Bay. The wins included a doubling of the Bay Restoration Fund (the so-called “flush fee” to improve sewage treatment plants). And lawmakers at the last minute approved legislation to require local governments in urbanized counties to start collecting funds to reduce stormwater pollution.
“The General Assembly has made a smart investment that will reap enormous dividends in jobs, property values, and our children’s health,” said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Bills designed to encourage construction of a wind farm off Ocean City, and force the natural gas drilling industry to pay for a study of hydraulic fracturing in Western Maryland, did not pass.
However, the “flush fee” increase and the creation of the local stormwater fees are critical in cleaning up the Bay. This additional funding to reduce sewage and runoff pollution is necessary for Maryland to meet new pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay (the so-called Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.)
The doubling of the flush fee alone will allow Maryland to finish upgrading the state’s 67 largest sewage plants, and decrease the amount of nitrogen pollution flowing into the Bay by 3.7 million pounds a year.
The creation of local stormwater fees in Maryland’s nine largest counties and Baltimore City will help better manage stormwater runoff, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of the pollution in the Bay and is the only major form of pollution that is growing in the estuary.
The landmark stormwater legislation passed the Maryland General Assembly about five minutes before the Midnight deadline, after a furious floor debate in the Senate, an attempt at a filibuster, and the defeat of more than a dozen hostile amendments.
By a vote of 33-14, the Senate approved a stormwater bill that the House had approved on March 20. Similar bills had died the last three years in a row.
Several state leaders were key to the approval of the "flush tax" increase and stormwater fee bill, including Governor Martin O'Malley; House Speaker Michael Busch and Environmental Matters Committee Chair Maggie McIntosh; Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller; and Senators Paul Pinsky, Jamie Raskin and Joan Carter Conway.
“It was a photo finish,” said state Delegate Tom Hucker, from Montgomery County, who sponsored the house version of the stormwater bill. “This is a huge step forward to protect the Bay. It’s going to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to address ... toxic stormwater runoff.”
The bill’s passage came despite fierce opposition from some Eastern Shore senators and representatives of Frederick County, who argued that managing stormwater would cost residents too much money.
The bill will require Baltimore and the largest urbanized counties in Maryland to follow the example of Montgomery county, which created an stormwater fee for its residents – now $70 per year -- a decade ago.
The suburban community north of Washington is now using the money to employ 3,300 workers to build $305 million worth of stormwater pollution control projects.
Among the 300 projects being built in Montgomery County are “bump outs,” roadside water filtration devices that absorb and clean water. Perforated plastic pipes are laid in a ditch beside roads and covered in rocks. The ditches are then divided by small dams, and seeded with wetlands plants, creating garden-like patches. The roadside gardens both slow the flow of stormwater, and filter out polltion.
“The stormwater picks up dirt and sediment and grease and oils and other things, such as – fertilizers,” said Steve Shofar, watershed management chief for Mongtomery County. “So you need to treat the water to keep the local streams healthy and to keep the Chesapeake Bay healthy.”
Montgomery County’s efforts are being direct by a strict stormwater pollution control permit approved in February 2010 by the Maryland Department of the Environment. Now, the state agency plans to go around and issue similarly tough stormwater permits this year to the state’s other large local governments.
The permits are needed so the state can meet new EPA pollution limits for Chesapeake Bay, which require a 25 percent reduction in pollution by the year 2025.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation