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Environmentalists Hail Watershed Year

There's a stench emanating from Maryland's waterways, where at least 100,000 fish deaths have been reported in recent weeks. Environmental experts blame an algae bloom caused primarily by an excess of phosphorus and nitrogen—elements that seep into the water from sewage and fertilizer runoff. The overwhelming smell, which had visitors to the Inner Harbor holding their noses, comes at a timely juncture. Several environmental bills designed to curb these pollutants were passed in Maryland's 2012 legislative session, which came to a close on May 16, 2012.
"It was a pretty watershed session for us," says Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Some are calling it the best in twenty years," adds Prost.
Of the series of environmental bills passed this session, three stood out as big wins in the push for cleaner water.
  • The Bay Restoration Fund (SB240/HB446), otherwise known as the "flush tax", doubles wastewater facility fees to $30 per year for septic users and $2.50 per month for public water users, thereby allowing Maryland to upgrade its sewage treatment plants with enhanced nutrient removal (ENR) technology.  
  • The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (SB236/HB445) aims to reduce pollution by limiting new housing development on septic systems, particularly in rural areas with abundant farm and forest land. Local jurisdictions will be given authority to apply limits to locations of new septic systems.
  • The Stormwater Management Bill (SB614/HB987) requires Baltimore City and the state's most populated counties to collect fees to fund stormwater pollution reduction projects. Individual counties will set their own fees and determine how best to manage storm runoff.
"I'm the stormwater girl. For me, getting that legislation passed [Stormwater Management Bill] from a policy perspective is really exciting," says Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, a local nonprofit that has teamed up with the statewide coalition Clean Waters, Healthy Families in support of clean water legislation. "We didn't think it would happen. We were in the trenches, pushing and praying," Van der Gaag says of the bill.

Others were pushing hard in the opposite direction. The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act is not without critics. Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothchild testified against the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act, claiming its proponents have exaggerated the negative effect septic systems have on the bay. He called the act part of the “war on rural Maryland.” In a similar vein, Valerie Connelly, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau, equated a consequence of the bill—limitations to farmers’ ability to subdivide their land for development—to taking money out of their bank accounts. 
Conversely, supporters of the environmental legislation, while pleased that the bills passed, question whether they'll go far enough to effect the changes needed to make significant inroads to cleaner water. "The devil's in the details," Van der Gaag says. "It's one thing to generate the [stormwater management] fee; you still have to find the projects to do the work."
She's not the only skeptic.
Other environmentalists recognize the uphill battle Maryland faces in the quest for cleaner waterways. At 67, former state Senator Gerald Winegrad remembers growing up crabbing and fishing in Annapolis creeks.
"All of the creeks and rivers have deteriorated. They've lost so much of the bay grasses. They used to be thick in these creeks," he says of the grasses that soak up elements like phosphorus and nitrogen, which can result in the algae blooms the state's waterways are experiencing. Now, says Winegrad, he knows people who have sworn off fishing and swimming in rivers near his boyhood home.
A Democrat who represented Anne Arundel County, Winegrad is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Action Plan, a group of scientists and policy makers on a mission to save the bay. He takes a pragmatic approach to statewide environmental legislation. "Are we making some progress? Absolutely. Are we making the progress we need? No."
But Winegrad stops short of predicting complete doomsday for the state's waterways. "With the ban on DDT, the osprey came back, the peregrine falcon came back, the bald eagle came back. There is hope," he says. 

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer, covering topics as diverse as parenting and public health. She writes for several local print and web outlets, universities, and medical centers.


Halle Van der Gaag, executive director of Blue Water Baltimore.

Photograph by STEVE RUARK

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