Why Citizen Oversight Is Crucial To Clean Water Law Enforcement

AverageCondition_May2013Since releasing the results of the Greater Baltimore Exposed Soil = Pollution Survey last week, I’ve received a number of messages from folks who do not understand why citizen involvement is essential to achieving a high level of compliance with Clean Water laws like erosion-sediment control.  The following true story shows why public support is essential to ensuring enforcement agencies have the resources needed to be effective, then creating a political climate where the agencies are allowed to enforce.  The success described below was not a fluke.  It has been repeated many times.  Now the challenge is to increase citizen involvement in all Clean Water law enforcement efforts in every watershed if we are to fully restore the Bay and the 57% of her freshwater tributaries that are unfit for our use (red-orange watersheds in map).

Anne Arundel Creeks Plagued By Muddy Water

In the mid-1980s I was the director of Maryland Save Our Streams.  Anne Arundel County SOS was headed by two incredible advocates: Peg Burroughs and Lina Vlavianos, both of whom were deeply concerned about poor construction site erosion and sediment control.  After each major storm they were getting complaints from SOS volunteers throughout the County of muddy creeks.  Though we suspected construction sites were the major culprit, we lacked the facts to support this suspicion.  So, Lina and Peg recruited 50 volunteers who participated in a two-hour training session one Saturday morning.  The volunteers then formed two-person teams and each team was assigned two major construction sites to survey.  A week later the volunteers met to share their findings.  They reported that only 21% of the 50 sites surveyed had good erosion and sediment control.  The results were released to newspapers and other media who widely reported these alarming findings.  This placed considerable pressure on the County Executive, who responded by doubling the number of sediment control inspectors from the existing six to twelve.  At that time, Anne Arundel County probably had the largest local sediment inspection staff in the nation.

Second Survey Reveals Shocking Result

About six-months later Lina and Peg did something the County had not anticipated.  They repeated the survey.  They called together the original 50 volunteers, repeated the two-hour training, then asked the teams to go out and survey 50 new sites – not the same ones visited six months before.  A week later they gathered to share their findings.

After doubling the enforcement budget the portion of sites with good erosion and sediment control went from 21% down to 17%!

Yes, the quality of control had actually grown worse!

After the media got hold of this there were calls to impeach the County Executive.  But cooler heads prevailed and the County Executive took the additional step he should’ve in the first place; he brought in a very skilled administrator to determine why enforcement was so poor and to develop fixes.

Volunteers Asked To Postpone Third Survey

About six months later the administrator got wind that Peg and Lina were about to conduct a third survey.  The administrator had been working closely with the two advocates allowing a pretty good relationship to develop.  This made it possible for him to ask Lina and Peg to consider holding off on the survey.  The administrator explained that a number of improvements had been made, but more work was needed to ensure the higher level of compliance would be lasting.  The administrator asked the advocates to hold off the third survey for three more months.  Peg and Lina found this reasonable and agreed.

Third Survey Finds Four-Fold Improvement!

Fifteen months after the first survey Lina and Peg called the 50 volunteers together again.  By this time the survey had become so popular they had to turn lots of folks away.  But they wanted to stay with the original 50 volunteers.  After refresher training, the two-person teams set out to look at 50 new construction sites.  A week later the volunteers reported that after nine months of no new funds, no additional inspectors and no new laws, the portion of construction sites with good control had risen from 17% to 61% – a four-fold improvement!

Why Did Control Quality Decline Then Improve?

We believe the old inspectors were training the new inspectors to use the same ineffective approaches for encouraging compliance.  So there was actually less inspecting going on using the old weak enforcement measures.  This may have accounted for the decline from 21% compliance to 17%.

The administrator saw the problems very quickly and modified inspection procedures.  Both old and new inspectors were required to follow a new written protocol that began with informing construction site owners of problems, describing how to fix the problem and setting a date by which correction had to take place.  If compliance was not achieved by the target date then the inspector was required to pursue enforcement action beginning with the mildest, then quickly escalating.  Supervisors worked very closely with each inspector to ensure they understood the protocol and were making full use of each element to attain more reasonable compliance levels.  But most important of all, the County Executive and County Council made it very clear that a higher level of compliance was a top priority.  As the third survey showed, these and other improvements worked.

Improved Compliance Without Greater Funding

An extremely important lesson from the Anne Arundel campaign was that increasing enforcement budgets does not necessarily result in greater compliance.  Though the 2014 survey showed that at least one Greater Baltimore jurisdiction is in desperate need of more sediment inspectors, I would argue against a budget increase as an automatic first step in fixing an ailing enforcement program.  Instead local elected officials must make it clear to enforcement staff that a high level of Clean Water law compliance is a top priority.   The inspection staff must then be given the tools (fines and other penalties) needed to achieve greater compliance along with the freedom to use these tools.  Inspectors who then achieve improved compliance should be rewarded while those who fail should receive additional training before being discharged.

Support Enforcement Agencies; Don’t Attack

I have known many people who work for Clean Water enforcement agencies.  All but a few were dedicated, competent and very conscientious.   I have found that their inability to achieve higher levels of compliance is far more likely a result of poor support from their elected superiors as opposed to laziness or incompetence on the inspector’s part.  But I don’t think neglect from superiors is always intentional.  It may simply reflect the fact that elected officials are far more likely to take heat for schools, police, fire and other public services when compared to environmental protection.  Or put another way, the public is far more likely to notice when class size grows, police response times decline or water pressure drops.  Unless there’s someone out there monitoring Clean Water law compliance the public has no way of knowing the reality.  This is another way of saying that we need a dramatic increase in the number of volunteers and watershed groups assessing compliance levels and educating the public so the agencies have what they need to enforce.  So, take a note from Peg and Lina’s playbook and do what they did when Anne Arundel achieved a 61% compliance rate: Hold a thank-you party for the County Executive, the County Council and the inspectors.

Eternal Vigilance: The Price of Liberty & Clean Water

I wish I could say that the improvements won in the 1980s can still be seen today.  Alas, Anne Arundel County was not found to be the best of the six Greater Baltimore jurisdictions during the 2014 survey.  In fact, the County was ranked quite low by both the citizen survey and the Maryland Department of the Environment.  Fortunately, improved compliance can be maintained if citizens repeat these campaigns about once every two- to four-years, say in time to release results just before primary elections.

All Our Clean Water Laws May Be Poorly Enforced

Poor compliance is not restricted to erosion and sediment control, but appears to plague just about all the laws we depend upon to protect and restore the Chesapeake and her 100,000 miles of tributaries.  While citizen action like the Greater Baltimore Survey is not a panacea, the approach used in the survey can be modified to gain an independent assessment of how well most other Clean Water laws are being enforced within a township, a city, a county, a watershed or even statewide.  But for reasons that I do not understand, most watershed organizations do not pursue this essential form of advocacy.  Maybe this is due to a lack of funding, in which case I urge the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network to make a call for proposals to carry out this type of action.  Further detail on how to conduct these surveys can be found at the CEDS Watershed Audits webpage.


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Greater Baltimore Citizen Survey Finds Poor Construction Site Mud Pollution Control


Dr. Ben Fertig, Suzy Wald, Wendy Alberg Assessing A Construction Site For Compliance With Mud Pollution Control Laws

In June and July, 2014, 105 construction sites in the Greater Baltimore region were surveyed for erosion control quality by 33 staff and volunteers from 22 local, statewide or national organizations. We found that up to 89% of disturbed, construction soils could be fully stabilized (protected) from erosion through the use of straw mulch, grass or stone. However, only 23% of these soils actually were protected.  We are deeply concerned that the same may be true throughout much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

ResultsGraphHarford County is achieving the highest stabilization rate (37%), followed by Baltimore City and Howard County (27% each). Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties had the lowest stabilization rate (12% – 19%) with an average of 16%.

As a result of stabilization rates far below the 89% level, the mud pollution discharging from these sites is far above that allowed by State and local law as well as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load document.  Mud pollution levels are also sufficiently high to damage the health of nearby waterways by destroying fish habitat and Bay grasses, carrying toxins and other contaminants, and contributing nutrients that result in algae blooms and dead zones in local creeks and the Bay. For each dollar spent keeping mud on the construction site with stabilization, we all save at least $100 in damages avoided. Continue reading

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Nottingham Ridge: An Example Why Bay Recovery Progresses So Slowly?

Nottingham Ridge, overall

Nottingham Ridge PUD


Muddy Water Discharged From Nottingham Ridge Site

Nottingham Ridge is an 83-acre Planned Unit Development (PUD) proposed for a site adjoining Whitemarsh Run, in Baltimore County, MD.  The site also drains to the Bird and Gunpowder Rivers, then the Chesapeake Bay.  Presently, two office buildings occupy a small percentage of the site.  A development company is proposing to intensively build-out the site.

The project would needlessly add a tremendous quantity of nutrients and other pollutants to the Gunpowder and Chesapeake Bay.  The site has also been needlessly discharging large amounts of muddy water (like that pictured to the left)  for more than a decade!  Why the emphasis on the word needlessly? Continue reading

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Why Your Help Is So Urgently Needed: The 4th Street Rain Garden Saga

The 4th Street Rain Garden

The 4th Street Rain Garden

After 8 Months It’s Finally Restored

The following article was posted last March.  A few weeks ago the 4th Street Rain Garden was finally restored, thanks to the City of Annapolis.  So, one BMP restored; several tens of thousands in the Chesapeake watershed to go.

Restoring the Bay is dependent upon keeping thousands of Best Management Practices (BMPs) working.  The following article illustrates why this task cannot be accomplished without a tremendous increase in public participation.  It shows how even the most dedicated agencies cannot cope with a tremendous workload.  It also shows how even the most Bay-knowledgeable among us are not aware of this need, which speaks loudly to the need for better public education. Continue reading

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Challenges of Supporting Agriculture & Reducing Farm Pollution

Maryland and other Bay jurisdictions now require keeping cattle out of streams.

Maryland and other Bay jurisdictions now require keeping cattle out of streams.

In the 1970s I had the honor of serving on the Baltimore County Soil Conservation District Board of Supervisors.  I was the “urban” supervisor.  My four fellow Board members were farm owners.  At first our relationship was strained to say the least.  But as I came to understand the difficulties farmers faced and that they cared for land as much as me (perhaps more so), I developed a deep respect for these people and the dedicated, underpaid District employees who support the farming community.

There are 122 Districts throughout the Bay watershed who employ about a thousand people serving on the front lines of the effort to reduce agricultural nutrients and sediment while keeping farms in business.  However, excessive paperwork and a lack of enforcement authority makes the task of convincing farm owners to implement practices challenging, to say the least.  This is particularly true when those practices may not increase farm profits or could even cost the farm owner money.  To learn more about the vitally important work performed by the Districts, the challenges they face in restoring the Bay, and why it is critical that each of us actively support our local District (especially when local budgets are debated)  see: Don’t Fence Me In: The Race to Save Chesapeake Bay.

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MAPP Transmission Line Haunts Landowners & Ratepayers

PHITowerPhotoA few years ago CEDS helped organize a 40-member coalition of local, state and national organizations who had a number of very serious questions about a $1.2 billion, multistate transmission line project known as MAPP (Mid-Atlantic Power Pathway).  This project was mostly about opening up markets in New York and New Jersey to electricity produced by Midwest coal-fired power plants.  Had this and related projects been built it would have increased climate-changing gas emissions, increased electricity costs and arguably made our electric grid more vulnerable to outages.

We thought MAPP was defeated and gone for good in 2012.  However, a recent decision will require electricity customers in Maryland and 12 other states to reimburse PEPCO for $80.5 million in expenses for this failed project.  Also, large tracts of land in Maryland are held in easements obtained to construct the transmission line making it easier for MAPP proponents to resurrect this project in the future.

For further detail see PJM Consumers on the Hook for $80.5M for Failed MAPP Project.

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YouTube Presentations & Workshops To Accelerate Restoration of Your Favorite Waters

Big Six Pollution Sources

The title slide from the Big Six Pollution Sources training presentation

CEDS has uploaded three narrated presentations to YouTube that would allow both volunteers and watershed organization staff to quickly learn how to:

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