Septic System Pollution and the Unheralded Value of Maryland's Environmental Funds

by Evan Isaacson

The Bay Journal published another interesting story this week by Rona Kobell about the perseverance it took by some residents and officials of rural Caroline County, Maryland, to finally address the failing septic systems plaguing their community.  The story even highlights how some local officials, after decades of trying to find a resolution, died waiting for it.  In addition to the residents of Goldsboro, Greensboro, and other towns near the headwaters of the Choptank River, another long-suffering character in the story is Lake Bonnie.  The article shares the fond memories of one older resident who used to swim in the lake as a child, which was closed decades ago due in large part to the problems caused by nearby septic systems. 

But there is another side to this story, not yet told, about one of the heroes in the tale.  The many failing septic systems despoiling the dozens of headwater streams of the Choptank, near Maryland’s border with Delaware, will soon be shut down and replaced with sewer lines leading to a new advanced wastewater treatment plant to be constructed in Greensboro.  This project would not be possible without substantial support from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and its Bay Restoration Fund (BRF).

In early August, the Maryland Board of Public Works approved nearly $6 million in grant funds made from the BRF and two other MDE funds.  Once derided as the “flush tax,” Bay restoration fees are what is making it possible for Maryland to come close to meeting its 2017 interim goals under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL).  And, as illustrated by this Bay Journal story, these fees are also giving hope to residents all over Maryland that their favorite local creeks, ponds, and lakes might finally be fishable and swimmable once again.

Similar derision has been heaped on the state’s so-called “rain tax,” but with that furor subsiding a bit, we may soon be able to focus on all of the good that local stormwater remediation fees will be doing in the coming years to clean our urban waters and carry Maryland’s progress forward beyond what the Bay restoration fees have accomplished to date.  Election seasons are funny like that.  Reason and common sense solutions go out the window, only to come back — however fleetingly — once the newly elected officials return to the business of administering to the public policy issues of the state.                                                                                                            

Maryland officials made some difficult choices in establishing the flush tax in 2004, doubling it in 2012, and preserving local authority to levy a rain tax in 2015.  But with these hard fought victories in place and valuable projects being put in the ground across the state, the job is not done.  It is important to keep moving forward.  Here are just a couple of ways Maryland policymakers can do that.

First, in the coming years, all of the major projects funded by the BRF will be complete.  At that point, most of the revenues in the fund will be used to support the debt floated to construct those projects, but a growing amount each year, likely more than $40 million initially will be available for other purposes.  It should go without saying that, at the very least, the fee should not be reduced just because the major wastewater treatment plant upgrades have been completed.  Ms. Kobell’s story is a great example of some of the other minor projects that the fees support. 

That story is also a perfect illustration of why Maryland should not back off from its commitments to address the problem of pollution from septic systems.  Maryland is nowhere near its goals under the Bay TMDL for addressing pollution from septic systems.  But just because the goals for this sector may have been overly ambitious does not mean that we should ignore the problem.  There has long been pressure on policymakers to dispense with Maryland’s mandates to ensure that new and replacement septic systems use top-of-the-line technology for reducing pollution.  With Bay restoration fees being used to help cover some or all of the cost of these valuable upgrades, it would be foolish to reverse course on these policies.

Finally, as a broader matter, it is important for citizens and policymakers to realize just how crucial these major environmental funds are and the difference they make to the health and happiness of Maryland residents.  Without the BRF, local stormwater remediation fees, and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund, among several others, it would not be possible restore the Chesapeake Bay, or the waters that feed it.  These funds and the investments they support are worthy of our continued support and have already begun to pay major dividends. 


© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform