Restoring Suburban-Urban Waters & The Bay: MS4 Annual Reports Key To Success

muddy storm outfallshutterstock_145535872Because most of us live in suburban-urban areas, the waters nearest our homes are also mostly unfit for our use (see Kid-Safe Waters article below).  Federal law requires that many cities, towns and intensely developed counties obtain a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit.  These permits require restoration efforts that could  make suburban-urban waters Kid-Safe.  For example, a number of permits call for treating a minimum of 20% of existing buildings, streets, and other impervious surfaces with highly-effective runoff pollution control measures.   In theory runoff from all existing impervious areas would eventually be treated making all our waters safe for kids, perhaps even allowing the return of some sensitive fish.  Additionally, MS4 permits play an essential role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay and her tributary waters.

Will we actually achieve the benefits promised by MS4 permits?

For Maryland watershed advocates, answering this question is now easier than it was a year ago and will soon be even better.  A year ago a number of watershed advocates testified at a hearing held by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on the Baltimore City MS4 permit.  Many of the advocates spoke of the difficulty in obtaining annual reports and the more important appendices which contain the data needed to verify compliance.  At that time few of the ten Maryland MS4 jurisdictions posted their reports online.  Now seven do: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Charles County, Frederick County, Harford County, and Montgomery County.  Three of these jurisdictions also post the appendices: Carroll County, Frederick County and Harford County.  The following three jurisdictions do not appear to presently post their MS4 reports online: Baltimore City, Howard County (will post soon) and Prince George’s County (email: for report).

MDE now requires posting annual reports online as a condition of each new MS4 permit.  Many thanks to MDE.  We urge the other Bay watershed states to do the same.  In fact, the Chesapeake Bay Program should consider creating a webpage with links to all annual reports for all Bay watershed MS4 jurisdictions.

Following are MS4 main pages for the other six Chesapeake Bay watershed jurisdictions: Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington D.C. and West Virginia.

How Annual Reports Increase Likelihood of Reaping MS4 Benefits

The success of any effort, like restoring the Bay, depends upon public support.  This support provides government with the political backing and resources needed to require the use of the most effective aquatic resource protection measures and to ensure each is maintained.

Without effective public support we see things like…

  • Over the past three decades as many as 100,000 or stormwater ponds and other runoff pollution control measures have been built throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  In some localities up to half have failed due to lack of maintenance.  As a result, thousands of pounds of pollutants are passing through measures which could be trapping a third to half the contaminants.
  • While most Bay watershed states have adopted innovative approaches for gaining the benefits of growth with fewer aquatic resource impacts, like Maryland’s Environmental Site Design, preliminary evidence indicates developers are still allowed to use less effective and less expensive measures far too frequently.

We all have a tendency to overstate how well we’re doing.  MS4 reports make it possible for advocates to verify success in their watersheds.   Following are a couple of examples:

  • In suburban-urban areas one full-time inspector can evaluate about a thousand stormwater facilities a year.   Chesapeake Bay Program guidance is presently calling for an inspection of each facility once every 1 to 5 years.  So the MS4 reports should show the total number of facilities, number inspected each year and that there’s enough inspectors to handle the workload.
  • The report should show which facilities were inspected during the previous year, any problems found and corrective action taken.  This would then allow watershed advocates to visit a few of these facilities to verify that they are working well using evaluation procedures such as those in Auditing Chesapeake Bay Watershed Stormwater Best Management Practices.
  • The reports should also detail the type of stormwater facilities required for proposed development projects.  All six Bay watershed states and D.C. require the use of highly-effective measures, such as bioretention, yet we are seeing a number of projects utilizing the old, less expensive and less effective measures.  Watershed advocates can review a sampling of approved plans to verify that all applicants made maximum use of highly-effective measures.

A reasonable person might ask why its necessary to verify the data presented in MS4 reports.  Perhaps business management guru Peter Drucker said it best: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.”  Without watershed advocates monitoring stormwater plans for use of highly-effective measures, it’s more likely special interests will pressure local officials into settling for less.  And without oversight, it’s far too easier for local officials to shift funds from stormwater inspection to more visible and popular programs.

In the past we’ve relied all too often on water monitoring data to tell us how well our protection programs are doing.  But 18 years can elapse from the time we implement a new pollution prevention program before we begin seeing in-stream changes.  Reviewing and verifying MS4 reports allows us to identify jurisdictions needing additional public support while there’s still time to prevent widespread aquatic resource damage.  For further detail on reviewing MS4 annual reports contact CEDS at 1-800-773-4571 or

What has your experience been with MS4 permits in your area?  Please let us know by leaving a comment.

About Richard Klein

President of Community & Environmental Defense Services (
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