Local governments are charged with enforcing state regulations limiting polluted runoff from new development, and the state is supposed to check on them.
Only state officials acknowledge they aren't doing it.
Environmental advocates say the lack of state oversight could lead to lax enforcement on the local level — and put efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay at risk. Rain washing dirt, fertilizer and other pollutants into storm drains and then waterways is a major source of bay pollution — the only category that has grown despite costly cleanup efforts.
The Maryland Department of the Environment hasn't reviewed any locality's enforcement of stormwater pollution controls since checking Charles County in 2006, and the last review of some counties dates back decades. The department is required by law to conduct the reviews every three years.
"We can pass whatever [rules] we want and have them written on paper," said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "But if counties aren't following them, we have negative impacts we were trying to avoid."
Jay Sakai, water management director for the state environment department, said the agency should scrutinize local enforcement more frequently, but noted, "Our resources are quite small."
Of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City, 18 haven't been reviewed since the 1990s, according to state figures. Frederick has gone the longest, since 1990, without a review. Among other counties in the region, Anne Arundel was last evaluated in 2005, Carroll in 1992, Harford in 1995 and Howard in 1997. Baltimore City was last reviewed in 1995.
Environmental groups fear Maryland may be failing to stem runoff from new development by not requiring the most recent state-prescribed controls mandated by a 2007 law.
In Baltimore County, for instance, environmental groups reviewed county records and found those stricter runoff control standards have been enforced on just three of 11 large new development projects approved in the past two years.
They also found the county has granted more than 360 waivers exempting developers from those standards — twice the number granted in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties combined.
"Without full compliance … we're going to continue to see more waters degraded and recovery slowed down considerably," said Richard Klein, a consultant who analyzed Baltimore County's recent stormwater decisions for the environmental groups.
Vince Gardina, Baltimore County's environmental chief, calls the criticism from environmentalists "unfounded and very misleading."
Gardina did not dispute Klein's findings but said he doesn't believe the latest techniques to limit runoff are always the best. He also noted that some of the waivers were for projects already in the works — meaning they could be "grandfathered" to use methods allowed under older regulations.
Stormwater regulations — first implemented three decades ago and periodically tightened since then — require developers to minimize runoff from housing, retail, office and industrial projects.
Runoff is the source of 18 percent of the nutrients and sediment fouling the bay, and that share is growing as development continues, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Traditional means of controlling runoff include such measures as stormwater ponds, but in 2007 lawmakers raised the bar, requiring new projects to take more effective steps to keep runoff from leaving their boundaries.
The law now specifies that "as nearly as possible," rainfall running off new housing subdivisions, shopping malls or other sites should be no worse after construction than before ground was broken.
It took state officials three years to draw up new regulations, as development interests and local officials pressed for flexibility in meeting the requirements, and environmentalists warned against weakening the law's intent.
Under the rules finally adopted in 2010, developers are supposed to minimize pavement and build rain gardens and other landscape features to collect rain close to where it falls, letting it soak into the ground much as it does naturally on undisturbed land. The rules require local governments to enforce these nature-mimicking techniques, known as "environmental site design," to the "maximum extent practicable."
Environmental advocates say failure by the state to ensure local enforcement could undermine other efforts to combat stormwater pollution from development built decades ago, before runoff controls were required. They point out that property owners in nine counties and Baltimore City must pay a new fee — derided by critics as the "rain tax" — to pay for those efforts.