New law a baby step

HOW TO PUT in perspective the environmental accomplishments of the General Assembly session that ended Monday?

To the legislature and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., thanks for a job well done. Congratulations on graduating from high school.

But let's talk about that Ph.D. you must earn very soon.

At some political risk, Ehrlich did the right thing, imposing a $30-a-year charge on households hooked to sewers, to pay for much-needed upgrades in sewage treatment plants.

Legislators made it better and fairer, imposing a $30 annual charge on Marylanders who live in areas without sewers as well. About 60 percent of this will go to upgrading septic tanks and 40 percent to planting winter "cover crops" to absorb pollution from farm runoff to the bay.

Altogether, this should reduce by an impressive 12 million pounds or more each year the polluting nitrogen that is the largest cause of the bay's impaired health.

This is as welcome as a drought-busting rain, given the lack of progress in restoring the bay's health in recent years. But eliminating 12 million pounds of nitrogen is little more than 10 percent of what's needed to restore healthy water to most of the bay by a 2010 federal deadline.

The so-called "flush tax" legislation also will reduce phosphorus, another major bay pollutant, by about 100,000 pounds a year. That's about 2 percent of what's needed for a healthy bay.

And while passing the legislation took an all-out, yearlong campaign by environmental groups, it was the easy part. It focused on sewage treatment plants - highly visible, well-understood sources of pollution - and also the sources with the most proven cleanup technologies.

Nitrogen from sewage has plummeted in the last couple decades, from 85 million pounds a year, baywide, to about 55 million. Phosphorus has fallen even more, from 9 million to 4 million pounds.

The time is soon coming when sewage will be a distant fourth place on the list of bay polluters, behind urban runoff, air pollution and runoff from farms. But neither Maryland nor the other five states that share the bay's watershed have enforceable plans or funding in place to tackle the other pollution sources on a scale that will come near restoring the bay.

The impact of pollution from Pennsylvania and Virginia makes it painfully clear that Maryland's best efforts to clean up the bay will be squandered without more progress from upstream and down.

Of the 277 million pounds of nitrogen the bay receives in an average year, about 45 percent flows down the Susquehanna River, mostly from Pennsylvania. Another 20 percent to 25 percent comes from the Potomac River, to which Virginia is a big contributor. The Susquehanna and Potomac contribute half the phosphorus that pollutes the bay.

The flush tax should meet more than half of Maryland's cleanup goal for nitrogen - but little more than 10 percent of the baywide goal.

Virginia is floundering in most aspects of meeting its 2010 cleanup goals. Pennsylvania is likely to pass a bond to upgrade sewage treatment - but sewage is a minor part of its pollution.

Fertilizer and manure make up most of the Susquehanna's pollution. This runoff from farming, largely exempted from pollution enforcement so far, is the biggest nut all three states have yet to crack.

Baywide, the Environmental Protection Agency says farming contributes 113 million pounds of nitrogen a year - compared with 58 million from sewage, 30 million from urban runoff and 12 million from septic tanks.

Reductions in agricultural pollution have been modest, as much from farms going out of business as from innovative cleanup strategies.

Techniques such as cover crops hold great promise, but they're needed on millions of acres, and they require more management than many farmers have been willing or able to provide. Making them effective, even on the 200,000 or so acres paid for by Maryland's flush tax, will be a challenge.

Managing dairy and poultry manure to maximize water quality is still an emerging science, nothing so straightforward as treating sewage. As for urban runoff, its impact is rising, as the increase in paved surfaces outstrips advances in pollution controls. One solution could come from reducing air pollution that falls on developed lands and washes to the bay, but current federal and state air-quality plans aren't ambitious enough.

Maryland did good by the bay this week, but this is no time to rest. In the session just ended, good bills to reduce pollution were opposed or killed on the premise that "it's only a small percent of the problem."

We don't have the luxury of ignoring any percentages. It's going to take everybody, doing everything they can, everywhere to restore this bay. The governor and legislature must move well beyond the flush tax - but also use it as an example to prod Virginia and Pennsylvania.

If that doesn't happen, and soon, the hundreds of millions of dollars the flush tax takes from Marylanders' pockets will go down the drain.