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Using Development to Drive Bay Recovery

'Trading pollution' is distasteful to some, but it can also be a way for local governments to fund upgrades to existing infrastructure.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s estimates, pollution from urban and suburban stormwater runoff is the only sector where nutrient loads are currently growing in the bay watershed.

On much of the western shore of the Chesapeake, including the Baltimore-Washington metro areas and surrounding counties, agriculture is an increasingly rare land use—shifting to the eastern shore or Midwest.

In Maryland, the Bay Restoration Fund (aka “Flush Tax”) is being used to upgrade wastewater-treatment plants to the best available technology. Yet, these areas consistently suffer from some of the worst water quality in the Chesapeake region.

In the face of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits, a sputtering economy, and cash-strapped governments, if we are going to improve water quality in our local rivers and the bay, we’re going to have to get creative.

The development of Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) by local governments throughout the bay watershed has made it more apparent than ever that in order to have any chance of reversing the damage caused by urban and suburban runoff in our lifetime, each local government needs to create a dedicated source of funds for the maintenance and retrofit of stormwater practices.

Funding these efforts from the General Fund or through inadequate fees on new development has been an abject failure, and without a serious approach, modeled upon the way that municipal drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is maintained and expanded, we shouldn’t expect much improvement in this arena.

During the upcoming legislative session, a number of organizations will continue to push for Maryland to adopt a state requirement that local governments put these dedicated funds in place, as well as create revenue streams to fill them.

Dedicated funding to tackle the existing backlog of stormwater work is a huge piece of the clean-up puzzle, but what about the fact that as new development comes into the watershed, or existing sources of pollution (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) grow, additional pollution will be added to already heavily impaired waterways? 

With the promulgation of the bay TMDL by EPA in late 2010, pollution-reduction targets are in place, and new pollutant loads, whether they be from stormwater, wastewater, or another source, must be “offset” so as not to worsen the condition of either the bay or the local tributary into which the site discharges.

The exact form that this offset or “trading” program will take is still under development, but a well-devised plan can not only foster truly “smart” growth in the bay watershed, but also enlist it as a powerful tool in the improvement of water quality.

I recognize that this will be difficult for many to believe or accept—after all, we’ve been bombarded with the mantra that “development is killing the bay” for decades.

But what if, as a condition of new development, local governments required developers to upgrade existing septic systems, restore broken streams and wetlands, and/or convert farm fields into forests?

In certain respects, the change is no different than current “adequacy of public facilities” laws that are on the books, and that pertain to school or water and sewer capacity.

Our waterways are the ultimate “public facilities”, and their current condition is, with very few exceptions, completely inadequate. 

The notion of “trading pollution” is distasteful to some and has surely been manipulated by others, but it’s important to recognize that even in the absence of any new growth, our rivers and the bay will remain badly broken, but that by harnessing the inevitable growth that will come to the bay watershed as a partner in improving water quality, we add another important tool to the toolbox of bay recovery.

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