Md. must enforce stormwater controls [Letter]

In a letter to the editor ("Md. leads the region in reducing stormwater runoff," Jan. 10), Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Robert Summers took issue with concerns I expressed earlier in The Sun ("Bay advocates say state lax in monitoring county stormwater controls," Jan. 3). At issue is a program which could halt the loss of 68 miles of Maryland waterways each year and eventually restore 4,600 miles polluted by past growth.

The program was established by the 1982 Maryland Stormwater Management Act which Secretary Summers' agency oversees. Through this law, MDE was to assist counties and larger municipalities in setting up programs to ensure new development used measures to minimize flooding, runoff pollution and other stormwater impacts. The act also required that "the Department shall periodically, but at least once every 3 years, inspect and review the stormwater management programs of the counties and municipalities and their field implementation."

In his letter, Secretary Summers claims that through reports provided by local jurisdictions MDE can assess how well each is doing in using the highly-effective aquatic resource protection measures required by state law and policy. If only this were so.

Local governments are under tremendous pressure to provide many critical services — police, fire, schools, water, sewers, stormwater, etc. When five of these six services decline in quality, the public finds out within a fairly short period of time. But few notice when a cut-back in staffing results in the use of cheaper, but less effective measures or higher failure rates for existing stormwater ponds and other runoff control measures. During dry weather when most would see a stormwater-polluted stream, it looks clear and clean. But look closer and you'll see few fish. Look at bacteria test results and you'll keep your children far from these waters which probably flow within a 15-minute walk of your home.

To comply with the Act, MDE used to send their staff out to review recently approved stormwater plans to ensure highly-effective measures were used to minimize stormwater impacts. MDE staff would also inspect ponds and other measures in the field to verify that they were being kept in good working order through regular maintenance. Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, MDE evaluated most local programs once every three years. But for reasons Mr. Summers did not explain, the reviews petered out in the last decade.

Secretary Summers seemed to contend that self-reporting by local governments is as effective as the independent reviews MDE is required to perform. While not a perfect analogy, one could liken this to doing away with school quizzes and tests. Instead, report cards would be based upon the teacher's impression of how well each student is learning. I suspect in a number of cases the teacher's assessment would come close to what tests would show. But without quiz and test results, there's no way to determine if the teacher's pet really deserves a better grade than the class-clown. Or if a school system opted to fudge their numbers a bit to prevent sanctions.

To bring this back to the real world, Anne Arundel County decided in 2001 to reduce their stormwater inspection staff from seven to one. A single inspector can evaluate about 800 stormwater measures in a year for maintenance needs. State law requires inspecting each measure at least once every three years. There are more than 11,000 of these measures in Anne Arundel County. By 2011, a decade after the cutback, half of the stormwater measures in the Severn River watershed were failing due to a lack of maintenance. Of course, the county still had a single inspector.

Ironically, MDE did perform a triennial review of the Anne Arundel County program in 2005. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency then conducted a review in 2008. Yet it was only recently that the county announced that it will be adding three more inspectors. So I guess this kind of supports what Secretary Summers wrote with regard to the triennial reviews being only one part of what it takes to keep local stormwater programs working well. It also takes a state agency willing to aggressively pursue correction of program deficiencies before they result in the failure of thousands of stormwater measures that could have been keeping hundreds of tons of pollution out of the Chesapeake Bay.

Richard Klein, Owings Mills

The writer is president of Community & Environmental Defense Services.

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