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.

Using Development to Drive Bay Recovery

(Posted by Erik Michelsen.)

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program’s estimates, pollution from urban and suburban stormwater runoff is the only sector where nutrient loads are currently growing in the bay watershed. On much of the western shore of the Chesapeake, including the Baltimore-Washington metro counties, agriculture is an increasingly rare land use, shifting daily to the eastern shore or Midwest. And in Maryland, the Bay Restoration Fund (aka “Flush Tax”) is being used to upgrade wastewater treatment plants to the best available technology. Yet, these areas consistently suffer from some of the worst water quality in the Chesapeake region (see EcoCheck Chesapeake Bay Report Cards).

In the face of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits, a sputtering economy, and cash-strapped governments, if we are going to improve water quality in our local rivers and the bay, we’re going to have to get creative. The development of Phase II Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) by local governments throughout the bay watershed has made it more apparent than ever that in order to have any chance of reversing the damage caused by urban and suburban runoff in our lifetime, each local government needs to create a dedicated source of funds for the maintenance and retrofit of stormwater practices. Funding these efforts from the general fund or through inadequate fees on new development has been an abject failure, and without a serious approach, modeled upon the way that municipal drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is maintained and expanded, we shouldn’t expect any improvement in this arena. During the upcoming legislative session, a number of organizations will continue to push for Maryland to adopt a state requirement that local governments put these dedicated funds in place as well as create revenue streams to fill them.

Dedicated funding to tackle the existing backlog of stormwater work is a huge piece of the clean-up puzzle, but what about the fact that as new development comes into the watershed, or existing sources of pollution (e.g., wastewater treatment plants) grow, additional pollution will be added to already heavily impaired waterways? With the promulgation of the bay TMDL by EPA in late 2010, pollution reduction targets are in place, and new pollutant loads, whether they be from stormwater, wastewater, or another source, must be “offset” so as not to worsen the condition of either the bay or the local tributary into which the site discharges. The exact form that this offset or “trading” program will take is still under development, but a well-devised plan can not only foster truly “smart” growth in the bay watershed, but also enlist it as a powerful tool in the improvement of water quality.

I recognize that this will be difficult for many to believe or accept—after all, we’ve been bombarded with the mantra that “development is killing the bay” for decades – but what if, as a condition of new development, local governments required developers to upgrade existing septic systems, restore broken streams and wetlands, and convert farm fields into forests? In certain respects, the change is no different than current “adequacy of public facilities” laws that are on the books, and that pertain to school or sewer capacity. Our waterways are the ultimate “public facilities”, and their current condition is, with very few exceptions, completely inadequate.

The notion of “trading pollution” is distasteful to some and has surely been manipulated by others, but it’s important to recognize that even in the absence of any new growth, our rivers and the bay will remain badly broken, but that by harnessing the inevitable growth that will come to the bay watershed as a partner in improving water quality, we add another important tool to the toolbox of bay recovery.

3 Responses to Using Development to Drive Bay Recovery

  1. A great concept… if refined to avoid tedious opposition from homebuilders, among others. (For some of the more awkward considerations, see the “Look before you Leap” questions on this PDF page 8: )

    School and sewer capacity planning is far better understood, more substantially documented, and more fully litigated, than the value of natural services. I agree — as would informed professionals — that rivers, wetlands, and natural areas are grossly undervalued, and many are in deplorable condition. However, how many judges have that awareness? I wouldn’t care to be the first municipality to defend a “river carrying capacity is a lot like classroom size” premise in court.

    It may be quicker and less legally risky to employ density allowances in existing ordinances.

    Begin by reducing density “by right” to ~half~ what it is today. If developers want, they’re free to build at a very low density.

    Then, offer choices along these lines: 1) You can build the permitted number of dwellings; or 2) IFF you set aside buffers to all surface water and forested areas, you can build fifty percent ~more~ dwellings; or 3) IFF you ALSO upgrade X existing adjacent systems, you can add X more dwellings.

    Something must be done. The developers have all the money, and make all the decisions. It’s just a matter of getting them to spend enough on the right decisions.

  2. Why would we want to convert farm fields to forests? There seems to be a disconnect that farm fields feed us! Agreed, forests are a good land use for the Bay (except when they fall and cause substantial erosion at the waters edge) and that agriculture needs to adopt the best available technology to minimise runoff, but with a growing worldwide population and a desire to buy our food locally there is a need to think a little more globally and less parochially about our goals.

  3. Lynne, a well-functioning pollution offset market will allow landowners to make that decision for themselves. If a poorly maintained piece of cropland could be retired for credits that would accrue to the property owner, the landowner benefits and the public benefits by virtue of getting cleaner water.