This op-ed originally ran in the Baltimore Sun.
Last summer, when floodwaters nearly wiped out Old Ellicott City, many people looked at the damage as bad luck caused by a 500-year storm. The truth is that such storms are no longer rare events. The Northeast United States has experienced a staggering 70 percent increase in intense rainstorms thanks to climate change. Unfortunately, efforts in the Chesapeake Bay region to adapt policies to address these threats are lagging far behind, and without broad and meaningful action, more property damage, injuries and loss of life are likely. Heavier and more frequent rains, among other impacts of climate change, also pose a threat to the massive effort to clean up the bay.
On Wednesday, Maryland’s secretaries of the departments of agriculture, natural resources and environment will have a chance to turn the tide. They will be meeting with federal officials and their counterparts from other states in the region to discuss where we stand and where we are headed at the midpoint of the region’s 15-year effort to follow a “pollution diet” for the bay.
One of the key questions before Secretaries Joe Bartenfelder, Mark Belton and Ben Grumbles is whether the bay pollution diet should factor in the effects of our changing climate. The science is strong. Increased rainfall will wash more pollution into the bay. Rising sea levels will substantially reduce the estuary’s extensive tidal wetlands, reducing their ability to absorb nutrients and sediment pollution. Rain gardens, stream restorations and other “best management practices” will be less effective if they are geared to past rainfall totals rather than to future projections based on robust climate change modeling.
All told, bay experts estimate that climate change will require a modest increase in effort to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution to meet 2025 water quality goals. Further, they maintain that local jurisdictions must take into account climate change when designing and building restoration practices to ensure that restored wetlands or rain gardens, for example, can withstand future sea level rise and intensified storms.