It's Time to Update Maryland's Outdated Water Pollution Laws

David Flores
Katlyn Schmitt

Feb. 15, 2021

As a coastal state, Maryland is especially vulnerable to climate and ocean change — but important environmental protections are woefully out of date, endangering Marylanders' health, safety, economic welfare, and natural resources.

Maryland could take a step to rectify that this year. State lawmakers are advancing important legislation that would bring outdated water pollution rules up to speed and protect Marylanders and the environment.

Senate Bill 227 would require stormwater design standards and permits to reflect current rainfall patterns and put the state on a trajectory to assess and regularly update them in the future. We need appropriately designed stormwater practices to capture and treat greater rainfall volumes to reduce pollutants, like nitrogen and phosphorus, that contaminate water when it rains. And we need the standards to mitigate flooding and other physical impacts.

Hurricanes are increasing in frequency, size, strength, and rainfall volume, and they're following increasingly northward tracks into the mid-Atlantic.

Sea levels are rising, causing billions in property and road damages. In Maryland, levels are likely to rise between 0.8 and 1.6 feet — and possibly as much as two feet — by 2050. One foot of rise alone over that period would cost the state $2.5 billion in property damage and damage some 400 miles of roads.

The intensity of rainfall has risen dramatically in recent decades, causing tragic, unanticipated consequences, including multiple "100-year storms" in Ellicott City and Baltimore. In 2016, one storm caused an estimated $22 billion in damages to Ellicott City alone. This trend is projected to continue; Maryland rainfall is expected to grow by 3 percent by 2025 and more than 6 percent by 2055.

High-tide flooding is increasingly harming local waterways, drinking water, and the Chesapeake Bay. Since 2000, the average number of days with high-tide flooding in coastal cities and towns around Maryland has increased by more than 75 percent, and low-income communities and communities of color are most at risk.

Old Rules Don't Work

Maryland's design standards for stormwater pollution control practices haven't been updated since 2000. The state has begun to reissue permits needed to clean up the bay by 2025, but they don't account for stronger and more frequent precipitation trends.

To state the obvious: If stormwater pollution controls reflect rainfall conditions of the 1980s, then they won't adequately protect sources of drinking water and prevent flooding as our climate and oceans change in the years ahead.

Senate Bill 227 and its House companion (House Bill 295) would ensure that Maryland does its part to offset the impact of climate change on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and update stormwater restoration standards. Doing so would help the state maximize the benefits of its investment in the bay and support Marylanders' safety and economic welfare.

Both bills received hearings in their respective committees this month. On February 10, Senate Bill 227 cleared the Senate and now awaits House consideration. Full passage out of one chamber offers hope that it will become law this year.

Maryland committed to identifying and addressing the impacts of climate change on the bay cleanup more than a decade ago. More recently, the Bay Partners, including the Chesapeake Bay Commission and regional states, pledged to address the impacts of climate change on the bay cleanup by 2025. The Chesapeake Bay Program, which is spearheading the regional partnership to restore the Bay, has shown that the Bay Partners must collectively offset an additional 5 million pounds of nitrogen pollution attributable to climate change by 2025.

If passed, this bill would reaffirm Maryland's commitment to do its part to restore the bay by offsetting pollutant loads not currently accounted for in its watershed implementation plan. Virginia has already adopted a plan and commitment to offset its load of bay pollution attributed to climate change by 2025. This bill would put Maryland on par with its neighbor to the south. It's time to enact it now.

CPR is following this bill as it moves through the Maryland state legislature this session, which concludes on April 12. For updates, check back here, subscribe to our blog digests, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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