(Posted by Gerald Winegrad). The recent deluges leading to massive stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay may cause great damage to an already seriously impaired system. We previously have discussed in this spot the huge flows of Bay-choking nutrients and sediment from farms each time it rains. Now, we will devote discussions to the pollution flowing from developed lands including huge amounts of nutrients, sediment, and toxic chemicals.The Chesapeake’s watershed before 1607 was 95 percent forested with huge acreage of intact wetlands. These forests and wetlands absorbed and held nutrients and sediment. The flow of these Bay-killing pollutants was greatly accelerated due to enormous changes in land use when we converted forests and wetlands to agriculture and then, more recently, to development. The Bay region has since lost about 50 percent of its forest cover and 72 percent of its wetlands. No change has been more devastating for the Bay.
Our Senior Scientists and Policy Makers for the Bay group has concluded that we must change the way we do business as population in the Chesapeake’s watershed continues to grow&emdash;and continues to sprawl. The population more than doubled from 8.1 million in 1950 to 17 million today. There are 3.8 million more people since the Bay Program began in 1983. Demographers expect 3 million more by 2030.
We also consume more land per capita. The average household size decreased during the last 30 years, but the average lot size increased 60 percent. And we harden more land per capita. From 1990 to 2000, the population grew by 8 percent, while impervious surfaces–paving and roofs grew by a whopping 41 percent. At this rate, in ten years an area more than twice the size of Shenandoah National Park will no longer soak up rain, nutrients, and sediment because of impervious surfaces such as roads, shopping centers, houses, and parking lots.
Policies to channel growth into existing towns and cities and put an end to sprawling development aren’t working. Instead of growing where schools, transportation, and utilities exist, we are growing into forest and fields. In Maryland, the much-touted Smart Growth approach is an abject failure. Thirteen years after its enactment, this non-regulatory approach has had no discernible impact on curbing sprawling development, fostering better land use, or protecting open spaces. Even the Rural Legacy program under Smart Growth has not led to better protection of designated open space areas of fields and forests.
The State of Maryland’s own data details the failure: 78 percent of the land on which new homes were built from 1999-2008 was outside the Priority Funding Areas designated for growth. This compares to 75.6 percent from 1990-1998 before the law went into effect. More single family residential housing was developed outside Smart Growth areas than before the law was enacted. Further, the average amount of land used by each home built inside growth zones has crept upward.
The cost to the Bay states of this failure to rein in sprawl is daunting as such land-abusing development cripples the state financially, socially, and environmentally. Many urban areas, such as Baltimore City, continue to lose population. Of Maryland’s 157 municipalities, 40 lost population from 2000 to 2009 and 61 others had a population increase of less than 100 while the state’s population grew by 7.6 percent. While we close schools, fire houses, libraries, and churches in Baltimore City, we must pay to build similar facilities in surrounding counties.
This sprawl and spread of impervious surfaces is bad for the Bay. Stormwater runoff flushes pollutants to streams and changes their natural flow. It is the only source of water pollution that had been increasing until the economic slowdown. Existing stormwater management laws do not prevent this increasing pollution from development.
The dilemma is that while we have failed to address sprawl development and increasing stormwater flows from new development, existing developed areas present expensive challenges in that stormwater retrofits are generally very expensive. So, as we allow increases in stormwater pollution from new development, the Bay is already overwhelmed from existing runoff from farms and developed lands. The development juggernaut, coupled with the failure to systematically address existing impervious surface pollution, may undo all efforts to revive the Chesapeake.
So what can we do? Our Senior Bay Group has made strong recommendations to solve the problem: Strong state land use controls can eliminate sprawl and stringent stormwater management requirements with impervious surface limits can eliminate any increases in pollutants from runoff from new development. We have recommended that state legislatures and local governments establish a no net loss of forest policy with protection and replanting of forested stream buffers a must. The loss of forests must be ended.
Requirements for and significant funding to clean up runoff from existing urban areas also is needed. Stormwater utilities must be established by all local governments. The states need to develop dedicated funding sources for stormwater retrofits and the establishment of an impervious surface fee on all impervious surfaces (like the Flush Fee) is the most logical source.
We have recommended that all new development have stringent stormwater runoff controls so as to achieve no net increase in pollutants or stormwater flows to the Bay with offsets possible. Scientists have documented even a 3 percent impervious surface cover in a watershed can cause damage to water quality.
All of those concerned with Bay restoration know that losing forests substantially increases the amount of pollutants reaching the Bay. A 2006 report found that from 1982–1997, development destroyed 140 acres of forest a day in the watershed, a total of 750,000 acres. This trend is pre-dicted to accelerate, producing catastrophic results for our rivers and the Bay. Net wetland acreage from a regulatory standpoint appears to have been stopped, but many wetlands still are filled for development and others are impaired by development activities.
However, state legislatures and local governments have not acted to establish a no net loss of forest policy with protection and replanting of forested stream buffers a must. This loss of fo-rests must be ended. Governor O’Malley’s 2007 transition team recommended that this no net loss of forest policy be established but this has not been done. The Chesapeake Bay Agreement called for 10,000 miles of riparian forest buffers by 2010. We’ve planted only a little more than half, and experts say that goal is too modest with at least 30,000 more miles needed to meet restoration goals. Controlling development will help achieve another vital goal – preserving forest land.
Unless we are prepared to accept a continuously declining Chesapeake Bay and the loss of our natural heritage, these difficult measures must be adopted — and soon.