After decades of effort, the voluntary, collaborative approach to restoring the health and vitality of the Chesapeake Bay— the largest estuary in the United States—has not worked and, in fact, is failing. A diverse group of 57 senior scientists and policymakers have joined forces to save the Bay. This is our plan.

Sprawl Poisons the Bay

(Posted by Gerald Winegrad). The recent deluges leading to massive stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay may cause great damage to an already seriously impaired system. We previously have discussed in this spot the huge flows of Bay-choking nutrients and sediment from farms each time it rains. Now, we will devote discussions to the pollution flowing from developed lands including huge amounts of nutrients, sediment, and toxic chemicals.

Bay Watershed Forest Cover, Chesapeake Bay Program
The Chesapeake’s watershed before 1607 was 95 percent forested with huge acreage of intact wetlands. These forests and wetlands absorbed and held nutrients and sediment. The flow of these Bay-killing pollutants was greatly accelerated due to enormous changes in land use when we converted forests and wetlands to agriculture and then, more recently, to development. The Bay region has since lost about 50 percent of its forest cover and 72 percent of its wetlands. No change has been more devastating for the Bay.

Our Senior Scientists and Policy Makers for the Bay group has concluded that we must change the way we do business as population in the Chesapeake’s watershed continues to grow&emdash;and continues to sprawl. The population more than doubled from 8.1 million in 1950 to 17 million today. There are 3.8 million more people since the Bay Program began in 1983. Demographers expect 3 million more by 2030.

We also consume more land per capita. The average household size decreased during the last 30 years, but the average lot size increased 60 percent. And we harden more land per capita. From 1990 to 2000, the population grew by 8 percent, while impervious surfaces–paving and roofs grew by a whopping 41 percent. At this rate, in ten years an area more than twice the size of Shenandoah National Park will no longer soak up rain, nutrients, and sediment because of impervious surfaces such as roads, shopping centers, houses, and parking lots.

Policies to channel growth into existing towns and cities and put an end to sprawling development aren’t working. Instead of growing where schools, transportation, and utilities exist, we are growing into forest and fields. In Maryland, the much-touted Smart Growth approach is an abject failure. Thirteen years after its enactment, this non-regulatory approach has had no discernible impact on curbing sprawling development, fostering better land use, or protecting open spaces. Even the Rural Legacy program under Smart Growth has not led to better protection of designated open space areas of fields and forests.

The State of Maryland’s own data details the failure: 78 percent of the land on which new homes were built from 1999-2008 was outside the Priority Funding Areas designated for growth. This compares to 75.6 percent from 1990-1998 before the law went into effect. More single family residential housing was developed outside Smart Growth areas than before the law was enacted. Further, the average amount of land used by each home built inside growth zones has crept upward.

The cost to the Bay states of this failure to rein in sprawl is daunting as such land-abusing development cripples the state financially, socially, and environmentally. Many urban areas, such as Baltimore City, continue to lose population. Of Maryland’s 157 municipalities, 40 lost population from 2000 to 2009 and 61 others had a population increase of less than 100 while the state’s population grew by 7.6 percent. While we close schools, fire houses, libraries, and churches in Baltimore City, we must pay to build similar facilities in surrounding counties.

This sprawl and spread of impervious surfaces is bad for the Bay. Stormwater runoff flushes pollutants to streams and changes their natural flow. It is the only source of water pollution that had been increasing until the economic slowdown. Existing stormwater management laws do not prevent this increasing pollution from development.

The dilemma is that while we have failed to address sprawl development and increasing stormwater flows from new development, existing developed areas present expensive challenges in that stormwater retrofits are generally very expensive. So, as we allow increases in stormwater pollution from new development, the Bay is already overwhelmed from existing runoff from farms and developed lands. The development juggernaut, coupled with the failure to systematically address existing impervious surface pollution, may undo all efforts to revive the Chesapeake.

So what can we do?
Our Senior Bay Group has made strong recommendations to solve the problem: Strong state land use controls can eliminate sprawl and stringent stormwater management requirements with impervious surface limits can eliminate any increases in pollutants from runoff from new development. We have recommended that state legislatures and local governments establish a no net loss of forest policy with protection and replanting of forested stream buffers a must. The loss of forests must be ended.

Requirements for and significant funding to clean up runoff from existing urban areas also is needed. Stormwater utilities must be established by all local governments. The states need to develop dedicated funding sources for stormwater retrofits and the establishment of an impervious surface fee on all impervious surfaces (like the Flush Fee) is the most logical source.

We have recommended that all new development have stringent stormwater runoff controls so as to achieve no net increase in pollutants or stormwater flows to the Bay with offsets possible. Scientists have documented even a 3 percent impervious surface cover in a watershed can cause damage to water quality.

All of those concerned with Bay restoration know that losing forests substantially increases the amount of pollutants reaching the Bay. A 2006 report found that from 1982–1997, development destroyed 140 acres of forest a day in the watershed, a total of 750,000 acres. This trend is pre-dicted to accelerate, producing catastrophic results for our rivers and the Bay. Net wetland acreage from a regulatory standpoint appears to have been stopped, but many wetlands still are filled for development and others are impaired by development activities.

However, state legislatures and local governments have not acted to establish a no net loss of forest policy with protection and replanting of forested stream buffers a must. This loss of fo-rests must be ended. Governor O’Malley’s 2007 transition team recommended that this no net loss of forest policy be established but this has not been done. The Chesapeake Bay Agreement called for 10,000 miles of riparian forest buffers by 2010. We’ve planted only a little more than half, and experts say that goal is too modest with at least 30,000 more miles needed to meet restoration goals. Controlling development will help achieve another vital goal – preserving forest land.

Unless we are prepared to accept a continuously declining Chesapeake Bay and the loss of our natural heritage, these difficult measures must be adopted — and soon.

6 Responses to Sprawl Poisons the Bay

  1. It’s good to read an acknowledgement that growth management (or lack thereof) affects Bay water quality. In discussions of TMDL’s and WIP’s, there is often much focus on stormwater but controlling growth is barely mentioned, if at all. This was the case at a recent public hearing on the phase II WIP in Prince George’s County; in response to questions, officials in charge of WIP II development stated they had no plans to include any Smart Growth elements.

    One question on the statement: “Even the Rural Legacy program under Smart Growth has not led to better protection of designated open space areas of fields and forests.” By “designated open spaces” do you mean the open spaces that are designated as such by planning & zoning as part of the development approval process (as in Anne Arundel County, for example)? Or are you refering to something else? Surely more fields and forests have been protected WITH Rural Legacy than would have been the case WITHOUT Rural Legacy. What is meant by “better” in this sentance? Better than what?

    • Nick,

      As to your query: by “designated open spaces” do you mean the open spaces that are designated as such by planning & zoning as part of the development approval process (as in Anne Arundel County, for example)? Or are you referring to something else?

      I was referring to areas formally designated by counties as Rural Legacy Areas (RLAs). Under Smart Growth, the state allows counties to designate such open space areas dominated by forests, fields and wetlands for protection giving such RLAs priority for millions of dollars earmarked each year from Program Open Space for acquisition.

      Dr. Rebecca Lewis studied Smart Growth in Maryland and its Rural Legacy program. Her PhD. Dissertation was completed at the end of 2010 and was an intensive and excellently done objective evaluation of Smart Growth in Maryland. She studied under Dr. Gerrit Knap, the Director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland.

      Dr. Lewis has definitively and clearly documented the failure of Smart Growth and its Rural Legacy program to change development patterns in Maryland or to reduce sprawl. She found that in many areas such sprawl has worsened since enactment of Smart Growth.

      She also has found that Rural Legacy has generally failed, too. For example, after detailed analysis, she concludes that “Development is becoming less concentrated and increasing in most RLAs; incentives are not enough in the face of development pressure or weak regulations; and there is not enough integration in the development process.”

      Her work found that 18 of the 30 designated RLAs actually experienced an increase in the number of parcels developed after 1998 as compared to before their designation and the enactment of Smart Growth. This failure is after the expenditure of $229 million of state monies to protect land in RLAs.

      Dr. Lewis was the lead author of Managing Growth with Priority Funding Areas: a Good Idea Whose Time Has Yet to Come by Rebecca Lewis, Gerri-Jan Knaap, and Jungyul Sohn published in the issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, November 2010. All of the authors are at the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

      The study found that “There is no evidence after ten years that [smart-growth laws] have had any effect on development patterns.”

      So your seemingly logical conclusion that “Surely more fields and forests have been protected WITH Rural Legacy than would have been the case WITHOUT Rural Legacy.” is not accurate.

      All of this documents the abject failure of Smart Growth and the need for a stronger regulatory approach by the state to overcome local land abuse decisions.

      Unfortunately, the Maryland WIP has a reliance on Smart Growth to curb sprawl even though the evidence is overwhelming that it does not work.

      Gerald Winegrad

  2. Is controlling growth enough. With a 50% loss of forest, 72% loss of wetlands, a population that has doubled in 60 years and a 41% increase in impervious surface, I think not. A solution for consideration, albeit an untenable one, is to depopulate the area, remove structures and allow areas to naturalize. Volunteers could be solicited and other areas could be targeted for this purpose. An achievable goal might be to return the watershed to the level of development of, say 1980. Regulating farmers, pesticides and, now, homeowner activities has not produced stable results. Dead zones persist, acreage of submerged vegetation rises and falls as do important fisheries, with no sustainable results to point to for the billions spent. Improving the survival of spate to an age that is less susceptible to disease perhaps is a good strategy, but there is no evidence of long term benefits to improving reefs for oysters. Release the Asian oyster. The supreme court has allowed absolutely unconscionable use of eminent domain. Lets put this power to good use.

  3. Professor Weingrad: Excellent essay! Should be read by anyone who cares about the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

  4. Gerald, for the rest of us out here, I have a question. You mention, “Our Senior Group has recommended” (various changes in the regulatory structure) and then follow it with a point-by-point admission of, “Unfortunately the state has declined to do any of the things we have recommended.”

    My question: About 50% of the blog posts from The Senior Group are ax-grinding recollections of “We try to tell them, but they never listen!” This tells me that what you’ve tried in the past (re: activism, litigation , policy work, etc) is not working.

    As I’ve asked several times in the past on this blog (and never received a response of which I’m aware) – why do you think the “Senior Group” approach has not worked (independently or together)? What should the next generation of activists, biologists, and policy folks do differently?

    Surely, your struggles for the Bay have taught you some hard-earned lessons. I bet a lot of people would like to hear what they are. I would too.

    I felt like it was worth mentioning on this blog one more time because, to be honest, the only people reading this are the members of the choir. We already know how hard you’ve worked. What the setbacks have been. What many of the dirty deals were. Recounting them for the same audience for the 300th time is not likely effective.