We are writing on behalf of Dorchester County in response to the guest commentary in the Jan. 31, 2018 edition of the Dorchester Banner (“Bay cleanup succeeding despite Dorchester Government’s opposition”). Interestingly, in the same edition of the Banner, there was a positive article about the Canary Park stream restoration project for the headwaters of Cambridge Creek resulting from a partnership involving Dorchester County, the City of Cambridge and the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy.
Of all local governments in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to demonize for allegedly doing nothing or less than their fair share to help the Bay, the writer from the Neck District wants to single out Dorchester County, Maryland ... along with the other local government officials who coalesced back in 2012 to raise awareness to, and actively pursue, improvement to the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most prudent and fiscally responsible manner.
The writer must have missed the November 2017 Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) report citing federal and state records showing that Baltimore City’s Patapsco plant (the second largest sewage plant in Maryland) discharged 2.3 million pounds of nitrogen pollution in January through August of 2017, more than twice the amount allowed for the year; and released 3.7 million pounds of nitrogen pollution last year (2016) – four times its permit limit. The EIP report says it’s one of 21 wastewater plants in the watershed (none in Dorchester County) that violated permit limits last year. Maryland’s largest WWTP (Baltimore City’s Back River plant) discharged 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen last year into a Bay tributary – 29 percent more than its 2016 permit limit.
For context, a conventional septic system delivers about 23.2 pounds of nitrogen to the groundwater (per MDE website). That means the nitrogen pollution from the Baltimore City Patapsco plant in 2016 (3.7 million pounds) was the equivalent of 159,483 septic systems. Making matters worse is the fact that WWTPs discharge directly into tributaries that flow to the Bay while the vast majority of septic systems discharge in groundwater and are not failing.
The writer must have missed the latest report card by EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program highlighting how far the upstream Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is lagging behind other Bay states in meeting the Bay TMDL goals. This lack of action upstream includes Pennsylvania local governments who are decades behind their local government counterparts downstream in terms of programs, policies and practices to improve Bay water quality. Note: pollution levels in the Conestoga River in Lancaster County, Pa. are three times the reported pollution levels in the Choptank River. Water flows downhill. It is a fool’s errand to do all that we Marylanders are doing and spending to save the Bay without paying attention to what’s happening upstream at Conowingo Dam and above.
The writer must have missed the consensus now among scientists and regulators that the additional nutrient pollution associated with the conditions in the lower Susquehanna River system (the loss of trapping capacity above Conowingo Dam) will result in Maryland not being able to meet Bay TMDL water quality standards, even with full implementation of WIPs by 2025 – a concern raised by Dorchester County officials and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition more than 5 years ago when presented with a local watershed implementation plan (WIP) with a price tag of $87 million, and while Maryland’s WIP was priced at $14.8 billion. If Dorchester County’s shortcoming is questioning the efficacy of costly one-size-fits-all top-down mandates (such as the regulation of septic tanks) and wanting to ensure that limited public funding is well-spent in the name of improving water quality, then we accept that as a badge of honor. The taxpayers of our County expect such fiscal vigilance; and deserve no less. This approach safeguards against expenditures that will be marginalized or rendered meaningless as a result of the loading from major sources that are not being appropriately addressed.
What the writer fails to mention or may not know is that EPA’s 2010 Bay TMDL (aka “pollution diet”) was flawed in its failure to adequately address the pollution loading to the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River attributable to the loss of trapping capacity behind Conowingo Dam. Indeed, Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles aptly refers to this significant “blind spot” in the Bay TMDL that the Bay watershed states and EPA must now address; otherwise the downstream efforts and expenditures of Marylanders will be in vain.
Most unbelievable is the writer’s assertion that the challenges to Bay clean up attributable to the Conowingo Dam factor “will undoubtedly be resolved soon thanks to the efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and alliance of 18 riverkeepers, and other environmental groups.” Really? The track record of those organizations indicates otherwise.
The writer must have missed CBF’s November 2012 press release (still available on their website) declaring Conowingo Dam a “red herring” in the context of saving the Bay, and the well-documented denials and downplaying of the Conowingo factor by the same groups he wants to believe are getting the job done. Following the playbook of the entrenched environmental organizations, the writer seeks to shame local officials for not doing what they are told by a bloated environmental NGO industry more interested in amassing grant funding and making payrolls than tackling the major sources of pollution loading to the Maryland portion of the Bay.
Finally, the writer conveniently overlooked the following Dorchester County projects, programs and investments intended to improve water quality, without doing harm to the local economy:
• Participation in the Community Rating System that reduces flood insurance rates for county property owners and has water quality elements to increase the County’s rating. The Departments of Planning and Zoning, Emergency Services, and Public Works are actively reviewing to improve upon these efforts through drainage system improvements and maintenance programs.
• The County recently updated the Critical Area Ordinance and has worked with the Critical Area Commission to modify planting requirements that are more suitable for property owners to reduce erosion and runoff within the local ecosystem.
• County Staff has regularly participated in the Eastern Shore Climate Adaption Partnership that looks to foster solutions for coastal communities through a regional approach.
• Planning and Zoning staff is currently working with the Critical Area Commission and the Eastern Shore Regional GIS Consortium to create and provide an erosion study for Dorchester County. This data will help the County focus its efforts on highly vulnerable areas and support grant applications for implementation.
• The County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan was recently updated and included a Flood Mitigation Annex. The projects detailed in these plans not only protect life and safety by reducing risk but also improve water quality by reducing the potential for debris after an event.
• Recently the County has developed a property assessment tool taking into account hazard impacts, regulation restrictions, and assessment value that provides for an educated decision on whether or not to deed restrict development allowing the land to return to a natural state. Promoting natural floodplain function through open space is an important practice that reduces risk while providing habitat and removing dilapidated buildings.
• The Soil Conservation District actively promotes the Cover Crop Program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and cost sharing efforts related to buffered waterways and drainage. All of these efforts are targeted to agricultural land and provide reductions in sediment and nutrient runoff. While these may be State/Federal programs the County is still actively engaged in increasing these practices. Dorchester County is one of two counties on the Shore that have a County employee as the District Manager for the office. This provides the County with more input over the efforts of the district.
• The Health Department continues to provide grants for septic system improvements and promotes water quality improvements as part of a broader effort to increase outdoor participation by local citizens.
• Other on the ground practices include rain gardens, and improved drainage at the Cambridge-Dorchester Regional Airport using tiered catch basins.
Meanwhile, the Susquehanna River continues to be the single largest source of pollution loading to the Chesapeake Bay, and even more so during storms when accumulated sediment and nutrients above the dam are scoured into the Bay in shock-loading proportions. Since the summer of 2012, local officials involved in the Clean Chesapeake Coalition have been raising awareness and advocating for a plan to address the obvious Conowingo factor - which was a blind spot in EPA’s 2010 Bay TMDL and was ignored in the 2014 Bay Watershed Agreement and has been downplayed by leading environmental organizations, until recently. The county stands behind our coalition of counties who constitute the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and the strong work that has been and continues to be accomplished. By all measures, this was and is money well spent toward the health of our waterways.
SUBMITTED ON BEHALF OF DORCHESTER COUNTY COUNCIL, WHICH UNANIMOUSLY VOTED TO SEND THIS RESPONSE
Ricky C. Travers