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New pollution regulations aren't enough for the Chesapeake Bay

Good news about the Chesapeake Bay used to be as scant as oyster harvests. But in the past few years, headlines have brightened. The six bay states andWashington, D.C., all agreed to implement a blueprint for cleaning up the bay and its tributaries. The blue crab population surged. This spring, the Maryland legislature acted boldly to accelerate pollution reduction from sewage and stormwater systems, and from sprawl development.

This summer, Gov.Martin O'Malley, environmental and agricultural regulators, and a legislative oversight committee will make decisions that could sustain this momentum — or could slow our progress. They will determine the final shape of three critical new regulations governing pollution from farm fields, septic systems and Baltimore City.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation applauds the state for many parts of its new regulatory push. But we must strengthen these rules in several areas if we hope finally to put bad news about fish kills, dead zones and beach closings behind us.

Resistance to these regulations from farmers, homebuilders and real estate interests is formidable. We all resist when we're asked to do more. But too much is at stake to relax our efforts. Try telling an unemployed waterman these changes are too burdensome. Tell him clean water and better harvests must wait several more decades. Also, many people already are doing more to reduce pollution. These new rules merely spread the burden fairly.

Here is how we view the three important pieces of regulation in the pipeline:

The septic rule is strong. It would require new homes with septic systems to use the best available technology. That makes sense since conventional septics aren't designed to control nutrient pollution at all. A top-line septic also is a bargain, relatively speaking. Building near a sewer system would be the best alternative for the environment as well as a community's budget. Homeowners on sewer pay up to $35,000 for their service. Best available technology for septics costs about $8,000 more than a conventional septic.

While septics currently contribute only about 6 percent of total nitrogen pollution around the bay, in some areas, such as Anne Arundel County, septics cause one-third of the pollution. Also, as we continue to sprawl into rural areas, septic pollution continues to grow and threatens to erase progress we've made reducing pollution elsewhere.

In contrast to the septic regulation, the rules for farms and for Baltimore City need improvement.

The farm regulations would better control pollution from fields where manure and sewage sludge are spread. Many farmers have made significant efforts to pollute less. But 39 percent of nitrogen pollution to the bay still comes from agriculture, about half of that from farm fields. Just as we're increasing our efforts to slow pollution from sewage plants, stormwater systems and sprawl, we must do more on our farms.

Some parts of the farm regulations are laudable. The rules would prohibit farmers from spreading manure and sewage sludge on the fields in winter when vegetation is not available to take up the nutrients.

But other aspects of the farm regulations need improvement. The state should strengthen rules for spreading manure and sludge in the autumn, and eliminate a loophole in a provision governing how close to a stream farmers can spread manure and sludge, among other changes.

Maryland also has proposed new rules on how Baltimore City discharges polluted runoff. Those rules, included in a new permit, need to be strengthened. Among amendments needed: Create performance standards that ensure specific pollution reductions; require more monitoring and accountability; and make sure that the discharges of runoff from city streets into waterways meet state water quality standards.

Strengthening these two regulations will ensure cleaner water, and all the economic and social benefits that flow from that. Clean water will benefit us and all future generations. If we don't keep making progress, we will jeopardize human health; populations of oysters, rockfish and crabs; and economies that depend on the bay — meaning thousands of jobs.

New, stronger regulations also will mean a more equitable sharing of the responsibility of cleaning up the bay and local creeks and rivers. Many Maryland homeowners already are paying higher fees to upgrade sewage and stormwater systems. Polls say the majority support this effort because it will pay off in the long term.

If we are going to finish the job of restoring our national treasure, all Marylanders — farmers, suburbanites and city dwellers alike — must increase their efforts. The watermen will thank us. Our grandchildren will thank us.

Alison Prost is Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Her email is aprost@cbf.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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