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Changing Landscape for Bay Restoration

Addressing Polluted Stormwater Runoff in Maryland's Urban Areas

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a significant and increasing majority of nutrient pollution harming the Bay and its tributaries emanates not from pipes, but as runoff from the landscape — that is rain or other water that drains into storm drains or directly into bodies of water throughout the region, carrying with it various pollutants that it picks up along the way.

Urban runoff has not always been such a large contributor of pollution in the Bay watershed. Three decades ago, agriculture was the dominant source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, with sanitary sewers and industrial wastewater sources and the deposition from coal-fired power plants also contributing many times more nitrogen than stormwater runoff. But according to data from the Chesapeake Bay Program, urban areas overtook wastewater as a source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in 2014. In fact, Bay Program data show that, while nutrient pollution from the wastewater and agriculture sectors has dropped in recent years, it has increased from the stormwater sector as a result of increased urban and suburban development and the resulting increase in rooftops, pavement, and other impervious surfaces that blanket previously natural landscapes.

Controlling polluted stormwater runoff from our urban landscapes is not the intractable problem that it may seem. Congress acted to address the issue almost 30 years ago by extending coverage of Clean Water Act permits to municipal storm sewer systems. Engineers have done their part, too, by developing a vast array of stormwater best management practices to reduce the volume of stormwater and enhance the water quality of runoff from impervious surfaces.

Installing this “green infrastructure” to promote the infiltration of rainwater and snowmelt creates a more natural urban landscape that protects and restores local waterways and provides a host of other co-benefits, including reducing air pollution, mitigating and adapting to climate change, lowering the energy needs of the cityscape, enhancing community health and recreational opportunities, and boosting local workforce and economic development, among many other benefits. Dozens of green infrastructure practices have been developed, tested, and implemented, and catalogs of such practices may be found on the websites of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Center for Watershed Protection, among others.

Maryland was an early leader in exploring stormwater best management practices and is now investing heavily in a statewide buildout of green infrastructure to restore the Chesapeake Bay and many local impaired waterways.  While dozens of municipalities across the country, particularly large cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, are currently implementing their own green infrastructure policies, arguably no state is addressing stormwater pollution through green infrastructure as aggressively as Maryland. In fact, according to 2016 data from EPA nearly one-half of the nation’s identified green infrastructure financing needs for future project development are located in Maryland.

In mid-October, 2016, in recognition of the role that Maryland is playing as a case study for the rest of the nation on stormwater pollution abatement, the Center for Progressive Reform’s Evan Isaacson analyzed the stormwater pollution control plans for Maryland’s Phase I municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit holders, a list that includes Baltimore City, and the nine largest counties in the state. Some of the jurisdictions are committing far more resources than others in their efforts to meet their MS4 permit obligations, and each jurisdiction is employing a slightly different strategy to address polluted runoff. Read the county-by-county analysis of these efforts by clicking on the highlighted counties in the map above, or by using the listing of jurisdictions below.

Later that month, Maryland regulators approved all 10 local financial assurance plans despite some obvious deficiencies in many of the plans. In fact, while the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a press release that lauded the local governments' plans as "innovative" and claimed that the jurisdictions "met their legal requirements under state law," the department also sent a letter to each jurisdiction outlining the many issues and concerns that the department stated it would like the local governments to address to comply with the law. Unfortunately for Marylanders and their water quality, the department lost any legal leverage it had when it took the action of formally approving each municipal government's plan. CPR will continue to work with other Chesapeake Bay and local water quality advocates and concerned citizens to ensure that these local governments fund and implement their plans and comply with their federal MS4 permits.

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