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Annapolis senator introduces bill updating data collection that guide stormwater regulations

Concerned about infrastructure standards not keeping up with the reality of climate change, Sen. Sarah Elfreth has introduced a bill that calls for updating the data used to inform regulations and updating it every five years.

Elfreth said climate change and more severe rainstorms threaten the progress Maryland has made to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. When rain hits a hard surface instead of a tree or the ground, it runs off more quickly, picking up sediment and other pollutants along the way. As the weather shifts, the data the Maryland Department of Environment is using to inform its stormwater standards is old and must be updated to reflect today’s climate, she said.

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When new buildings and roads go in, builders must adhere to stormwater management regulations to reduce pollution. They are required to store the rain from a one-year storm, which means a severe storm that is likely to occur once a year, which usually means building a tank or detention pond, according to the Maryland Stormwater Manual states.

In Anne Arundel County, a one-year storm is 2.7 inches of rain in 24 hours, according to the manual.

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That happened at least twice in 2020 — 2.74 inches of rain fell on Nov. 30 at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. On Aug. 12, more than 3.5 inches of rain fell at BWI, including 2.9 inches in one hour.

If the updated data shows an increase in what is considered a once-a-year storm, construction projects like the road improvements being completed on Maryland 450 and new developments will need to build stronger systems to match.

If they aren’t strong enough, excess sediment from upstream flows into a waterway, eclipsing the sun for underwater plants that provide aquatic life with dissolved oxygen.

MDE spokesperson Jay Apperson said the department has several efforts underway to “update the current design rainfall estimates so that they reflect most recent rainfall patterns.” The department has also hired a contractor to predict future rainfall estimates for various climate change scenarios. He said the rainfall information comes from the NOAA Atlas 14, published in 2004.

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In a letter of information submitted regarding the bill, environment officials said the Jan. 2022 implementation date is not realistic. They said the gears are already turning to update the data, but it is a multi-state effort that will take years to complete.

“Recognizing the need to update this data, the Department is working in coordination with the Maryland Department of Transportation toward a regional Atlas 14 update. This regional update will require pooling funds with North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware,” Director of the Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Relations Tyler Abbott wrote. “If funding is secured by May of 2021, then NOAA could complete the technical analysis in 2 - 3 years, which means 2023 or 2024.”

The update can’t be made until the science is available.

“MDE is fully committed to climate resiliency and building into our Bay protection programs the best available science, including updated precipitation models,” Secretary Ben Grumbles said in a statement. “This is why we helped lead the charge in 2019 to ensure all Bay states include climate impacts and actions into our restoration plans and why we will continue to push for effective stormwater controls and watershed protection initiatives in Maryland and states in the Chesapeake region.”

Arundel Rivers Federation scientist and lawyer Jesse Iliff said a wealth of data from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration shows Maryland can expect severe storms to increase in the coming years.

“The need for the bill is clear to anybody who works in pollution control response and stormwater management on a regular basis,” he said. “Stormwater runoff is the fastest-growing pollutant to the Chesapeake Bay.”

It also wouldn’t be up to MDE alone to decide if the change in precipitation figures warrants a change in infrastructure standards. The bill requires consultation with the Chesapeake Bay Program, Chesapeake Bay Commission, an academic institution and The Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

NAIOP Maryland Vice President for Policy and Government Relations Tom Ballentine said the group, which represents the commercial real estate industry, supports the bill with some amendments.

“We agree with the basic premise that the regulations need to be evaluated and reevaluated periodically; we have some important concerns about the time cycle outlined in the bill as introduced,” he said.

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