As Maryland’s General Assembly session begins today, a critical goal for Chesapeake Bay advocates will be to keep water quality improvements on track by defending anti-sprawl laws and septic tank pollution regulations approved last spring -– but which since have drawn fire.
A second goal will be finally securing full-funding, pledged by the Maryland General Assembly back in 2007, for an innovative program that pays for runoff pollution control projects through car rental and vehicle fuel taxes.
The five-year-old Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund was designed to receive $50 million a year to clean up waterways. But it has never received close to that amount, last year getting $24 million, with the rest siphoned off into general state spending.
This underfunding came despite the well-documented success of the program. Between 2009 and 2012, the Bay Trust Fund paid for farm and urban runoff control projects that prevented 3.56 million lbs of nitrogen pollution, 335,000 lbs of phosphorus, and 478 tons of sediment annually from contaminating local waterways, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
These pollution reductions are required by 2010 EPA pollution limits for the Chesapeake Bay and state blueprints to meet these limits by the year 2025. Click here to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint.
Last spring, lawmakers approved and Governor Martin O'Mally signed anti-sprawl legislation called the “Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012.” The law limits the use of high-pollution septic systems in large new real estate development projects, and requires the counties map future growth into four “tiers” -- including one category designed to be preserved as farmland or open space. To learn more, click here.
The law has since been attacked by some rural lawmakers. The critics allege restrictions on development in fields and forests is part of what they call O'Malley's “War on Rural Maryland,” an alleged (fictional, actually) attempt to over-regulate rural counties. The claim that the anti-sprawl legislation is an assault on rural Maryland is the opposite of the truth. The law seeks to protect rural Maryland from poorly-planned, spread-out real-estate developments that have been gobbling up farmland at an alarming rate. Sensible restrictions on sprawl also improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, by preserving forests and fields that serve as filters and sponges for rainwater.
After the General Assembly session last year, the Maryland Department of the Environment released proposed regulations that require nitrogen pollution removal devices in the septic systems on most new developments. Homes built with septic systems (underground containers that slowly release waste into the ground) leak far more nitrogen pollution into Bay tributaries than homes connected to sewer lines and treatment plants. Advanced new technology can reduce the nitrogen discharges of new septic systems by half for more. Requiring this technology is a step forward for the Chesapeake Bay.
During this legislation session, it will be important to prevent any backsliding on these septic tank regulations and improved planning laws.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation