In a recent editorial titled "The septic backslide," The Sun accused Maryland's government of caving to rural interests and putting Chesapeake Bay restoration at risk. The editors' claim is that by amending regulations to allow governments to target advanced septic pollution controls — referred to as BAT — to the areas where they can do the most good, the government is being irresponsible. "Caving" in this case means listening to rural communities when they point out that, for many locations, installing BAT will not create substantial water quality benefits.
Giving local governments greater control over how to meet environmental targets is fiscally responsible because it promotes cost-effective choices that can be used to meet multiple local needs. The investment in BAT, which can easily cost more than $10,000 per system to install and more for ongoing maintenance, is only money well spent when it substantially improves water quality. Even though BAT is highly effective at removing nitrogen, for many locations, the nitrogen removed would never have reached a place where it could do harm. Much of the nitrogen that is released far from major water bodies gets removed by plants and bacteria before reaching the bay. Further, many local water quality problems, particularly the kind that cause swimming bans in lakes, are caused by phosphorus or harmful bacteria, neither of which are addressed by requiring that new systems use BAT.
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is not backing away from requiring BAT where it does make a difference. The scientific evidence is strong that septics in the critical area affect estuarine water quality and contribute to poor habitat conditions for fish and waterfowl. The requirement for BAT in the "critical areas" near tidal waters means that spending will be targeting where it generates the most bang for the buck. Further, because maintenance is critical to ongoing nitrogen removal, MDE is proposing requirements for maintenance contracts on these systems in the critical area.
Because BAT performance depends on location, the proposed regulation gives local governments the flexibility to choose sewer hookups or other technologies where they make sense. It also gives them the option to require BAT where it makes sense outside the critical area. Even counties far from the bay will have places where BAT could be an effective tool because water flow paths cause some sites to deliver more nitrogen to the bay than others. With this flexibility, local governments will have the option to spend money in ways that will most meaningfully improve water quality.
The editorial board is right to be concerned that too much flexibility can result in inaction. Successful Chesapeake Bay restoration will require enforceable and verifiable caps on nutrients. However, once adequate protections are in place to ensure caps are met, much can be gained from allowing the type of flexibility that promotes innovation and cost-effectiveness. Contrary to the assertion that flexibility is always bad for the environment, flexible environmental policies have paid off in Virginia. That state's wastewater treatment plants were able to meet their designated pollution caps at lower cost than original estimates, in large part due to a flexible "bubble permit." This innovation set a pollution target for a group of plants, which enabled them to conduct plant upgrades in a cost-effective manner. The environmental goal was not compromised as a result of this flexibility, and ratepayers saved money.
Economists and others have long recognized that innovation is supported by telling people what you want them to do, not how to do it. By setting enforceable goals, but not dictating a one-size-fits-all technology, innovators are enabled to find new and effective ways to achieve goals at a minimum cost.
Giving local governments control over how they meet environmental targets is also a way to prevent Chesapeake Bay compassion fatigue. Local governments are not "whining," as suggested by The Sun, when they balk at asking residents to spend money on inappropriate solutions at the expense of other urgent needs. Rather, by making this adjustment to regulations, the government is creating confidence among Maryland residents that they are committed to spending money in appropriate ways to achieve the clean and safe Chesapeake Bay that people want.
Lisa Wainger is a research professor of environmental economics at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the current chair of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee to the US EPA Chesapeake Bay Program. She is writing as an individual and does not speak for either institution. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.