Restoring 4600 Miles of Maryland Degraded Waters & the Stormwater Fee

Darkest red areas have the most intense development and the most stormwater-polluted waters; yet all could be restored with the stormwater fee.

Darkest red areas have the most intense development and the most stormwater-polluted waters; yet all could be restored with the stormwater fee.

Though no Maryland home is more than a 15-minute walk from the nearest waterway, the waters closest to 70% of us are unfit for our use due to stormwater pollution and related impacts.  The stormwater fee could restore many of these waters in a few decades.  Imagine, residents of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore City, Frederick or College Park being able to wade, fish or swim in neighborhood waters without fear of contracting a disease.  But achieving this and many other benefits depends upon the fee and spending the funds very wisely.  It also depends upon achieving a high level of compliance with Maryland’s new Environmental Site Design (ESD) requirements.  It is for these reasons that the Maryland General Assembly must not rescind the stormwater fee law.

How Stormwater Makes Waters Near Most Homes Unsafe for Us & Our Children

Children enjoying a typical neighborhood stream.

Children enjoying a typical neighborhood stream.

Annually a million gallons of rain falls on each acre of Maryland.  When the acre is forest very little runs off, but if the acre is a parking lot then most becomes highly contaminated runoff that kills most aquatic life, scours tons of sediment from downstream channels, floods nearby homes, and contains enough disease-causing organisms to pose a threat to those who wade or swim in suburban-urban waters.  More than a fourth of all Maryland waterways (4600 of 17,000 miles) are now degraded due to stormwater pollution.  These are the waters that are also closest to most Maryland homes.  If like me you have children in your home then you know how hard it is to keep them from playing in neighborhood waters.  So our only option is to restore these waters to a safe condition with an abundance of life to fascinate young and old alike.  And this is precisely what the stormwater fee could achieve.

Why the Stormwater Fee is Crucial to Restoring These Waters

We’ve already taken the first essential step towards restoring our degraded waters by adopting Environmental Site Design in 2007.  Without ESD new development was degrading another 68 miles of Maryland waterways annually.  When new development fully complies with ESD we not only reap the benefits of growth but do so without losing a single foot of additional waterway.  And when growth takes the form of redeveloping a shopping center, an apartment complex or other existing impervious surface (rooftop, streets, parking lots, etc.) we actually restore downstream waters.  This is because ESD requires that both new and old impervious surfaces on the redevelopment site drain to highly-effective runoff control measures.  In fact, for each of acre of impervious surface redeveloped with ESD 300 feet of downstream waters are restored.  But it would take a century or more to restore all of our degraded suburban-urban waters through the ESD redevelopment process.  With the stormwater fee restoration could occur in as little as three or four decades.   In theory then Baltimore’s Inner Harbor could be an attractive place for wading, maybe swimming and perhaps even fishing come the year 2050!

Inspections is the Most Cost-Effective Use of Stormwater Funds

Nitrogen is arguably the most important and difficult to treat of the pollutants threatening the Chesapeake Bay and her 100,000 miles of tributaries.  The only source of nitrogen that is increasing is that from new development (except in those jurisdictions requiring the use of ESD).

Inspections by government officials is essential to ensuring BMPs are properly installed and maintained.  For every $20 invested in inspections we keep a pound of nitrogen out of local waters and the Bay while most proposed uses of stormwater funds require $200 to $1,000 per pound of nitrogen removed.  Fully funding inspection services is essential to ensuring that ESD practices achieve the goal of halting further loss of Maryland waterways and that waters degraded by past growth recover ASAP.

Since the mid-1980s more than 30,000 ponds and other stormwater BMPs have been built throughout Maryland.  Our investment in this infrastructure could total $1.5 billion.  Most of these BMPs are maintained by the property owned; not government.  In some localities half have failed due to a lack of inspections and maintenance.  Restoring these BMPs can only begin once we expand inspection staffing to that needed to identify maintenance needs (BMP-by-BMP) then provide technical assistance to BMP owners, along with enforcement action in a few rare cases.  But thirty years of experience shows most owners will voluntarily maintain a BMP once they understand the vital importance of each facility, provided an inspector is there to provide this educational service.

By focusing first on the most effective BMPs we can bring about a substantial reduction in pollution loads in a relatively short period of time.  The Maryland General Assembly should ask the Maryland Department of the Environment to develop an estimate of the number of inspectors needed to:

  • Ensure ESD practices are properly installed and maintained for the next decade;
  • Assess the condition of those 30,000 existing BMPs which have not been inspected recently;
  • Provide technical assistance to the owners of failing BMPs; and
  • Restart the once every three-year reviews of local programs MDE was required by State law to perform but halted nearly a decade ago.

We should then ensure that these inspection services are fully funded before committing stormwater fee tax-dollars to less cost-effective measures.

About Richard Klein

President of Community & Environmental Defense Services (ceds.org)
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