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New report faults Maryland for failing to plan for stormwater pollution in Chesapeake Bay

Maryland is backsliding on past commitments to reduce stormwater pollution reaching the Chesapeake Bay, according to a report released Monday by an environmental watchdog group.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s assessment, which also points to a retreat by the state of Pennsylvania, said Maryland cut its efforts to mitigate stormwater runoff, citing fewer investments by state government and insufficient planning for the future.

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The report calls on federal, state and local officials to immediately intervene and reverse course or otherwise jeopardize the overall health of the Bay.

As stormwater runoff increases due to climate change factors such as increasing rainfall and storm intensity, the environmental group warns that, without action, the Chesapeake Bay’s water quality could not only worsen for aquatic life but also affect human health and safety, especially as it relates to floodwaters.

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“Maryland and Pennsylvania are walking back their prior commitments; unfortunately, we found that they’re walking away from it instead of trying to fix the problem,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report, during a virtual news conference Monday. “They’re not taking it as seriously as they used to.”

The report comes after Maryland experienced its wettest year on record in 2018, prompting concerns among scientists and researchers about stormwater pollution threatening the Chesapeake Bay’s ecology. It also urges states to update rainfall projections instead of relying on historical patterns due to the increasing threat of climate change, citing Ellicott City’s two 1,000-year flood events in 2016 and 2018.

In Maryland, the state plans to allow about 1.5 million more pounds of nitrogen pollution from stormwater runoff into the estuary by the 2025 cleanup deadline, about 20% more than proposed in the state’s 2012 plan.

Nitrogen pollution is among the biggest detriments to the Bay’s health. It causes algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater plants. Blooms also strip waters of oxygen as they die and decompose, and can contain bacteria harmful to humans.

Pennsylvania’s 2019 Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan would allow 7 million pounds more nitrogen pollution from urban and suburban stormwater runoff into the estuary by 2025, an increase of 87% from its 2012 plan.

In a statement, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state remains committed to restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay but in a way that addresses nutrient and sediment pollution from all sectors and not just from stormwater runoff.

“To reduce stormwater runoff it is crucial that the state gain the buy-in of stakeholders — including local governments that are responsible for planning, paying for and installing [pollution control measures],” Grumbles said. “We will also continue to put a priority on enforcement.”

He added that the state continues to update its so-called “watershed improvement plan” and plans to “substantially increase” its targets for reducing nitrogen by 2025.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has previously called for legal action against Pennsylvania for its lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, calling on officials there to meet their obligation to the estuary.

Representatives from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to a request for comment.

Together, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania account for 90% of the stormwater pollution in the Bay, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.

The watchdog’s report outlines the states’ backtracking on infrastructure and stormwater buffering projects since 2012.

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In Maryland, the state has stopped plans to build more stormwater-filtering projects called rain gardens. It also will install less pavement permeable to water, and it will plant fewer forested acres along urban streams than it committed to in previous years. Pennsylvania’s latest plan scaled down the number of acres of parking lots and other “impervious surfaces” it will replace with rain-absorbing green spaces.

“It’s counterintuitive,” said Tom Pelton, a spokesman for the organization and co-author of the report. “This is a growing problem but instead, states aren’t doing more — they’re doing less.”

The report documented the dangers of allowing stormwater runoff to continue without intervention, citing water quality monitoring by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper in Harrisburg this summer that found unsafe E. coli bacteria levels on a third of the testing days and worse fecal contamination.

Erik Fisher, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Maryland assistant director and land use planner, said developed states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania can create jobs and stabilize communities from the problems born out of climate change.

“We need to be putting practices in place now that keep us on track over the long term, because it’s not going to get any cheaper or easier later,” Fisher said.

In its report, the Environmental Integrity project called on the EPA and Congress to provide more funding for stormwater pollution mitigation projects and urged them to provide more regulatory oversight for Maryland and Pennsylvania. Representatives from the EPA did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, a water advocacy organization, said Virginia, which borders the Bay along with Maryland, has been moving in a better direction than its neighbors. She said development permits in Maryland and Pennsylvania contain outdated language that do little to account for the current threat of climate change when they should require vegetative buffers and more green infrastructure.

“We are never going to get the improvements we need if we do not correct the standards exacerbated by climate change,” Nicholas said. “Unless we make some drastic changes, we’re not going to like the consequences.”

Nicholas said while some struggle to understand the scope and severity of climate change, officials in Maryland and Pennsylvania must address it head on by divesting in coal-fired power plants, shifting away from using dams as pollution mitigation tools and building more parks and vegetative rooftops in urban areas.

“Climate change is real, it’s here, and it’s in our watershed,” she said.

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