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.

Septic Solution for a Cleaner Chesapeake Bay

Posted by Sen. Brian Frosh.

Some of the best minds—including the diverse group of scientists and policymakers who are signatories of the Chesapeake Bay Action Plan—have devoted decades of study to determine the causes of the Bay’s decline and remedies for its revival. (If you haven’t already, check out the no-nonsense 25-Step Action Plan tab at the top of this page.)

Part of the Plan is to rein in nitrogen that now seeps from septic systems into the Bay and our groundwater.

We’ll take a significant step toward limiting nitrogen if the General Assembly approves a proposal by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to ban future installations of septic systems in most new housing developments throughout the state.

In his State of the State address before the General Assembly in early February, Gov. O’Malley minced no words when he laid out the reasons for his challenge:

We must realize that where we choose to sleep, eat and live affects our environment and it affects our Bay. Together, we’ve made some great progress in recent years. And we shouldn’t take that lightly. It didn’t happen by chance, it happened by choice…reducing farm run-off, reducing pollution from aging sewage treatment plants; most recently, starting to reduce the damage and the pollution that’s caused by storm-water run-off. But among the big four causes of pollution in the Bay, there is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed, and in fact it’s actually gotten worse,…and that is pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our State—systems which by their very design are intended to leak sewage ultimately into our Bay and into our water tables.

Within days of the governor’s address, a bill titled “Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2011” was drafted and dropped in the House and Senate hoppers. Noting that four million pounds of the state’s yearly total nitrogen load to the Bay comes from on-site sewage disposal systems and that 145,000 new on-site septic systems could be added over the next 25 years, the proposed legislation would require that any new development of more than six residences be hooked up to sewers or shared systems. In other words, individual septic systems that dispose sewage effluent beneath the soil surface would be banned from most new housing projects.

I am encouraged by the governor’s call to action. I applaud Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) and Del. Steve Lafferty (D-Dist. 42) for filing the Preservation Act bills. While this is an important bill, it’s not the land-use bogeyman that its opponents will make it out to be. And in fact, such a law would only eliminate a fraction of the nitrogen that flows into the Bay from the six states and the District of Columbia that are within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In the meantime, I and eight of my Senate colleagues will be keeping an eye on Senate Bill 160, legislation we filed in late January to require that on-site septic systems used in new construction throughout the entire Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bay Watersheds—an area covering all of the state except part of Garrett County—utilize the best available nitrogen-removal technology. Identical legislation has been filed in the House of Delegates.

This bill further addresses the issue of excess nitrogen, the main culprit behind the Bay’s life-choking algae blooms that threaten crabs, fish and other watery denizens with enormous “dead zones.” Maryland already has laws in place governing septic systems within the Critical Area. SB 160 expands the coverage because nitrogen continues to flow into the Bay and its tributaries from surface and groundwater well beyond the Critical Area buffer. It is estimated that this legislation will prevent 13,000 pounds of surface water nitrogen and 37,500 pounds of groundwater nitrogen from entering the Bay each year.

While SB 160 is a logical progression in our ongoing effort to become better caretakers of the Bay, ushering it and the Preservation Act through the legislative process will not be a cakewalk. We need to convince lawmakers and citizens that remedying our septic system problems are not only good for the Bay, but has the added benefit of reducing infrastructure costs associated with suburban sprawl.

Do we have the political will to do what’s right for the Bay by stopping the damaging flow of nitrogen from our septic systems? Gov. O’Malley thinks we do. “We are up to this,” he said during his address. I think so, too, but only with public support. Help us say “yes” by giving these bills your support. That’s a much more gratifying answer than the alternatives.

2 Responses to Septic Solution for a Cleaner Chesapeake Bay

  1. Septic systems cause about 5% of Bay nitrogen pollution. Agriculture causes 50% of Bay nitrogen pollution. Half of agricultural nitrogen pollution on less than 10% of farm acreage is from the land application of animal waste (sewage sludge, poultry litter and manure). Pollution from septic systems is meaningless quantitatively, and politicians who fail to recognize that agriculture is the primary Bay polluter, and fail to concentrate on it, merely divert public opinion from the truth. They either downplay agricultural pollution out of ignorance, or for reasons of re-election. Senator Stuart’s initiative to reduce phosphorus lawn fertilization in Virginia is another example. He claims it will eliminate 230,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution per year. In Virginia, more than 8 million pounds of phosphorus are land-applied in poultry litter annually, to no benefit of crops. Politicians focus on citizen behavior to “Clean Up the Bay” while agriculture continues “business as usual” fertilization to maximize farm profits, and continues to cause most of Bay pollution.

    • Dr. Land, this is an obvious truth you’ve put forward. And based on cost: benefit, the septic bill is pure folly.

      However, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to enforcing water quality on ag-related NP sources is that they (Farm Bureau, etc) quickly claim that “no one’s forcing individual small landowners or major municipalities to clean up – so why should we?”

      Of COURSE it’s a red herring of an argument. But passage of bills like this (and the VA lawn fertilizer bill) should begin the inevitable increase in political/societal pressure on ag non point discharges. Bills like this tell the ag community, whether they like it or not, that the crackdown is happening around them……and their turn will come. And they know it, regardless of what they say in the media and in litigation.