Frederick Co. reeling at potential costs of watershed plan

Local officials are decrying what they say is a burdensome state watershed cleanup plan they say could cost almost $4 billion to execute in Frederick County.

Purifying Chesapeake Bay tributaries of such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorus is a worthy goal, the county leaders say, but requiring expensive upgrades and unrealistic promises are the wrong solutions to the problem.

“Economically, it would kill us,” Commissioner Paul Smith said of the draft plan, which will move into the public comment period in mid-January.

Paying for it would require an extreme measure such as doubling or tripling the personal property tax, he said.

Drawing on complicated computer models that have generated moving targets for nutrient removal, the cleanup is not well grounded in the real world, Smith said, and the effort might slice more deeply into budgets than it does into pollution.

The massive undertaking to clean up the bay by 2025 grew out of changes to the federal Clean Water Act.

Encompassing six states and Washington, D.C., the pollution diet created by the federal government in 2010 reflected a need for action, said Christopher Aadland, Maryland’s watershed implementation plan liaison to Frederick and Washington counties.

“We want to have swimmable, fishable waters,” Aadland said. “And with the population growth estimates, if we don’t do something now, the bay will probably reach a tipping point and completely go downhill, and we won’t be able to resurrect it.

While the state’s computer models have limited accuracy on the local level, Aadland said they work on a large scale. They are supported by decades of research and adjusted with data from testing stations that check water quality across the state.

The costs for the watershed plan will be high, and federal or state funding is unlikely, he said, but letting the bay die is not a good option.

Smith and other local officials view the state’s to-do list as burdensome and its benefits questionable.

The cleanup plan’s goals get their teeth from enforcement of state-issued permits, said Shannon Moore, acting manager of the county’s office of sustainability and environmental resources.

The county and its municipalities hold storm sewer system permits that allow them to send runoff down a storm drain as long as they follow certain rules. Those permits are now renewing, giving the state a chance to enforce the watershed implementation plan by writing new guidelines into the documents.

If the county strays outside the standards of the permit, the state and federal governments could impose fines of up to $14 million per year, Moore said. Noncompliance also could expose the county to the risk of a lawsuit from citizens or environmental groups.

Before the watershed plan, to comply with its stormwater permit, the county had to upgrade or install new systems on 10 percent of its urban, impermeable land — areas such as sidewalks or buildings where water cannot soak into the soil. After permit renewal, the county might have to retrofit an additional 20 percent of this land.

The watershed plan would inflate this number even more, Moore said.

Other options

Previous cleanup goals focused on planting trees, cultivating meadows and street sweeping. Under the new system, the county’s most frequently used tactics get much less credit. For example, planting one acre of trees counts for only .34 acres of rehabilitation, Moore said. More favored, and more expensive, are structural retrofits such as retention ponds and green roofs.

If the state moves forward with its draft plan, Smith believes the county will have little choice but to take legal action.

But local governments should not cry foul just yet, said Jim George, manager of the water quality protection and restoration program with the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The state wants to work with local governments to make sure the plan isn’t too intensive, he said. The strategy can change if needed.

“There are a lot of fears out there that may not be warranted,” George said. “This is a very organized and deliberative process that will have many steps to it.”

While the $4 billion cost estimate from Frederick County staff seems too high, he said, the larger consideration is the price of inaction.

Moore believes a more reasonable solution to bay pollution is cutting off the problem at the root by dealing with fuel and fertilizer.

Significant pollution comes from exhaust, which layers impurities on the ground, leading to dirty runoff, she said. Regulating the sulfur content in fuel would be good for the air and also reduce nitrogen in stormwater.

In addition, a program that prevented people from over-fertilizing would go a long way to cleaning the waterways, she said.

A county report to the MDE stated that such a program “would also be free, as opposed to costing hundreds or thousands of dollars per pound of pollutant removed.”

Aadland agreed, but said pushing such measures through the legislature is not always easy. Similar bills likely will come up in this year’s session of the Maryland General Assembly, he said, but will face opposition from strong fertilizer lobbies.

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