Water watchdogs needed

"I give the environmental community, including myself, a C for passing new laws and regulations, and an F in making them work."

— Richard Klein, founder, Community & Environmental Defense Services

More than 30 years ago Richard Klein, in a few hours on a couple of creeks, gave me a profound appreciation for water's way, for the paths rain follows as it falls on the Chesapeake Bay's watershed.

Ideally, it falls like it fell that day on Dipping Pond Run, a wholly forested little bay tributary in Baltimore County.

There, rainfall was slowed and misted by the thick canopy of trees and understory, filtered slowly through leaf litter, soaked into soils until it recharged the groundwater.

Only the rains of the biggest storms swelled the stream. The rest seeped in over time, feeding the stream even in time of drought with a slow, regular pulse that was clean and cool and clear, encouraging life, aquatic diversity, trout.

Not far away was Herring Run, an urban stream in Baltimore City, where rainwater takes a different way — sheeting off roofs and parking lots and streets, concentrated and intensified by gutters and curbs, cannonballing from the pipes of storm drains into the run.

The rain there, laden with sediment from construction sites; dog and cat and bird poop; and pollution fallen from the air runs off all at once, scouring the stream channel with destructive velocity.

Nothing much soaks into surrounding soils to recharge the creek in dry times. Its pulse yaws between delirium and coma, an instability inimical to life.

Mr. Klein's own home creek was destroyed decades ago by the 1.2-million-square-foot White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County, a trade of aquatic diversity for shopping diversity.

In 1979, Mr. Klein authored one of the first papers in the now-robust scientific literature documenting the links between development and stream degradation. And he's still working, and as expert as anyone, on the vital but unglamorous issue of ameliorating what happens as rain falls across the watershed.

Stormwater controls have progressed since White Marsh Mall in the 1970s. Maryland alone has around 32,000 detention ponds and other, similar devices to slow and filter stormwater gushing from the development that has increased from 8 percent to 16 percent of the state in recent decades.

There's a twofold problem with these improvements. They were never designed to remove many of the pollutants that make stormwater the bay's fastest-growing water quality concern. And many are failing — filling in, clogging up, faulty in design, because the state and counties responsible for inspecting them are woefully understaffed.

How bad is this lack of enforcement? Anne Arundel County, which alone has 11,000 stormwater control devices, has cut its inspection staff from seven to one. That one inspector would be lucky to get around to a given stormwater control device once every seven years.

It's a similar story in rural areas where the Maryland Department of Environment has inspection responsibility. Inspections that should occur every several weeks perhaps get done every several years.

The MDE is supposed to review all of the counties' stormwater inspection and enforcement every three years but stopped doing it for lack of staff. The MDE has a pitiful 148 inspectors for everything: air quality, water quality, stormwater, sediment, toxic wastes.

Now, all of the bay states have embarked on a new and improved generation of stormwater controls as part of a renewed, more regulatory stance toward meeting bay cleanup goals.

The new techniques, known as Environmental Site Design, guide development away from steep slopes, fragile soils, existing forested buffers. They work to mimic nature, guiding stormwater runoff to rain gardens and other devices that let it soak into the soils as it would in a forest.

But even more now, it comes back to the nitty gritty of inspection and enforcement. Mr. Klein notes that the latest stormwater controls will be far more numerous and require far more inspections to keep them working. Meanwhile, budgets for more inspection at the state level and in many counties are static or declining.

The solution, Mr. Klein thinks, is to train citizens to create a statewide corps of stormwater inspectors, starting with members of the more than 200 environmental groups in Maryland. He has begun a pilot project with the Severn River Watershed Association in Anne Arundel County to tackle inspecting about 2,000 stormwater controls.

I think we could take it a step beyond that and involve college and high school students to "adopt" one or more stormwater devices and report problems to the state and counties.

It's shameful that we aren't willing to pay to make our laws work, even as we pass more laws. But a citizen-student stormwater corps is an alternative that might prevent yet another restoration plan that looks good in theory but underperforms in practice.

Tom Horton, a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun, is the author of six books about the Chesapeake Bay. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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