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Gerald Winegrad: These four pollution sources stand in the way of a better Chesapeake Bay

Stormwater pollution is one of the major problems facing a Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
Stormwater pollution is one of the major problems facing a Chesapeake Bay cleanup. (Carol Swann)

My last column focused on the urgency of curbing farm pollution, especially from thousands of tons of raw manure from 609 million Delmarva chickens.

Let’s address the four other major sources of Bay pollutants — nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. These pollutants foul the Chesapeake Bay, threaten human health and lead to collapsed fisheries.

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Air emissions — After agriculture, the greatest contributor of nitrogen are emissions from burning coal and natural gas for electrical and industrial production and burning fuel in motor vehicles, planes, boats, and lawnmowers. These emissions rain down on the Bay and contribute about 30% of nitrogen.

While the federal Clean Air Act has helped reduce these pollutants, pollution restrictions are under attack by the Trump Administration and there are many more motor vehicles driving more miles than when Bay restoration efforts began in 1983.

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Solutions — Keep current federal clean air initiatives including clamping down on power plant emissions, especially from coal, and increase motor vehicle fuel economy standards.

Each person should do their part by buying clean energy for electrical needs, using less electricity, weatherizing homes, installing solar panels, using electric lawnmowers, driving fuel-efficient cars, and driving less. The Coronavirus shut-downs led to a 52% reduction in vehicular traffic but we are back to 90%. Remember, every one of us is an engine of pollution and we have a duty to lessen pollutants.

Stormwater runoff — Maryland, like other bay states, is lagging far behind its Pollution Diet limits for stormwater pollutants, especially nitrogen. Nitrogen from developed land increased by 53% since 1985, an abject failure of the Bay restoration program as states and local governments have failed to curb growth and sprawl and fix existing stormwater problems.

Stormwater causes 51% of non-natural sources of sediment to the Bay, 29% of phosphorus, and 20% of nitrogen. New development stormwater flows are increasing, negating reductions from costly stormwater retrofits. The county has 43,000 acres of impervious surfaces and 33,383 storm drain inlets funneling untreated polluted runoff to 5,215 outfalls into creeks and rivers. Maryland has 820,000 acres of developed land covering 21% of its Bay watershed.

Solutions — Curb sprawl development and enact state and local laws requiring all new development to achieve no increase in rate, volume, or pollutant loads from predevelopment for a 25-year storm event. This also would reduce flooding and silting-in of creeks. Funding for stormwater retrofits needs to be greatly increased to get the job done.

The continued clearing of forest exacerbates runoff problems. Half of our forests are gone from 1607, and the loss continues. Anne Arundel County lost 2,356 acres from 2013 to 2017 and yet failed to pass a no net loss bill as the City of Annapolis did in 2018. We cannot restore water quality without protecting our forests. It is imperative that the state enacts a true no-net loss of forest bill like Annapolis’ to assure no forest is lost to development by requiring 100% reforestation.

You can plant trees, install rain barrels to allow stormwater to slowly percolate into the ground, install rain gardens, eliminate/reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, and become involved in a creek restoration project.

Wastewater — Nitrogen and phosphorus reductions from wastewater (sewage) have been the major success story in bay restoration efforts. More than $1.4 billion has been used from the $60 annual per household fee on water and sewer bills to upgrade Maryland’s 67 largest treatment plants to remove 99% of phosphorus and 96% of nitrogen. Remarkably, baywide nitrogen was reduced by 61% from 1985 to 2018 despite an increase of 5 million people.

Solutions — Prevent raw sewage spills by only disposing of the three Ps in your toilets: Pee, Poop, and Paper--toilet paper only. The entire wastewater system is threatened by wipes, wrongfully labeled as flushable. Never flush down these wipes that clog the system as well as diapers, rags, toilet bowl scrub pads, sanitary napkins, fats, oils, grease, or chemicals. After treatment, all wastewater flows to the bay. You also should conserve water.

Septic tanks — For 20% of County residents, their 40,000 septic tanks present serious bay and groundwater pollution problems, leaching 500,000 pounds of polluting nitrogen to the bay annually, and into groundwater. Baywide septic tank nitrogen pollution increased by 53% from 1985 to 2018. Efforts to hook septic users to advanced wastewater treatment plants or to at least have the tanks upgraded to remove nitrogen have not been very successful.

Solutions — Owners should hook-up into WWTPs (best) or convert old tanks to nitrogen removing ones. All new septic tanks should employ nitrogen removing technology.

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It is up to us to reduce our own bay pollutants and press elected officials to take these necessary steps to save the bay.

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