After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

The Session of the Bay

(Posted by Erik Michelsen)

In preparing for the 2012 Maryland Legislative session, the memories of largely unproductive sessions for the environment in 2010 and 2011 were very fresh. The combined environmental community – the Clean Water, Healthy Families coalition – resolved to be more focused, to pursue a direct request of legislators, and to focus on goals that would have a measurable impact on improving water quality. Those goals were:

• Finish upgrading the wastewater treatment plants that Maryland has already committed to upgrade.
• Ensure that local governments have resources to reduce polluted stormwater runoff and implement their local clean water plans.
• Reduce pollution from poorly planned development – including limiting new septic systems.
• Require that all wastewater discharges, including septic systems, are treated at the highest levels to protect public health and ensure clean water.

The first two goals were explicitly stated in Maryland’s Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) and comprised the core funding strategies for the state’s efforts to address pollution from its central urban and suburban corridor. The last two were focused on ensuring that we don’t erase any gains we make via the first two by developing in a way that creates a staggering amount of new pollution.

As the clock ran down on the legislative session yesterday, the future of the Chesapeake and Maryland’s rivers hung in the balance. Early in the day, legislation to double the Bay Restoration Fund (or “flush fee”) passed, followed by a bill aimed at limiting sprawling growth by restricting where septic-served subdivisions can be located. The debate on a bill to require the 10 largest jurisdictions in the state to create dedicated stormwater restoration fees carried on late into the evening, with opponents, largely from the eastern shore and western Maryland, attempting to filibuster until the end of session, at midnight.

At one point, the floor leader for the bill, Senator Paul Pinsky, asked the opponents – many of whom had invented, and then promulgated, the notion of a “war on rural Maryland”  – why, when they opposed additional water quality regulations on farms on the grounds that agriculture wasn’t the only source of pollution to the bay,  they opposed a bill whose impacts fell most heavily on the densest areas of the state. The opponents fell back to a line of defense that can only be characterized as diversionary. They argued that Maryland’s overall pollution contribution was insignificant compared to the contribution of other states, that the cost of compliance was too expensive, and that the Chesapeake Bay TMDL “pollution diet” was in litigation, so there was no need to rush to address it.

Never mind the fact that the bill was aimed at jurisdictions with an MS4 stormwater permit, which has conditions and requirements that exist independent of the TMDL. Eventually though, the filibuster was shut down, those in favor of the bill in the Senate prevailed, and the bill was sent back to House and passed with 10 minutes to spare in the session.

The community still intends to pursue, through regulations, a requirement that all new septic systems be built using the best available technology, but we ended the evening with three of our four goals in hand and a strong commitment to address the fourth. There can be little doubt that the 2012 session will go down in Maryland lore as the “Session of the Bay,” despite the fact that it was tumultuous in many other respects.

And, with the close of the 2012, Maryland’s cities, town, and suburban enclaves are well positioned to meet their pollution reduction goals going forward. They have developed their plans and now have been given the tools to implement them in a timely fashion. There still remains important work to be done in other sectors, though, with Maryland’s nutrient management regulations still under consideration and an agricultural community divided over its willingness to be a full player in the recovery of Maryland’s most valuable natural resource. The session has ended, but the journey to restoration has just begun.

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4 Responses to The Session of the Bay

  1. Jim Foster says:

    Great work by the coalition on passing an array of bills that will move us forward in Maryland toward cleaner rivers and streams. Thanks for writing about this Erik and for all your hard work to make it happen.

    Jim

  2. Nick Williams says:

    What are the nutrient management regulations still under consideration?

  3. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has a series of nutrient management regulations that are currently undergoing review.

  4. Erik Michelsen says:

    The septic regulations requiring that all new septics in MD be best available technology were adopted in late 2012.