Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley waded into a remote Eastern Shore lake contaminated with fecal matter Wednesday to draw attention to his lagging legislation that would prohibit construction of most new septic systems across the state.
It was an unusual stunt for O’Malley, especially after all but conceding last week that the General Assembly would probably delay action and study his proposed ban until at least next year.
“This is a very difficult problem to ever draw a picture of or even to see; it’s a tough one,” O’Malley told a handful of Goldsboro residents and state workers as he donned chest-high waders and waddled toward the side of Lake Bonnie as a stiff wind pushed the temperature near freezing.
But pictures are exactly what the governor got. Several reporters, photographers and even a news helicopter hovered overhead as O’Malley stepped into the lake. “They’re waiting to see if I slip and go under, then it would be ‘News at 11,’ ” O’Malley quipped.
The governor said the lake — closed to swimming since 1996 because of failing septic systems in the nearby town of Goldsboro, as well as animal and other bacterial contamination — “offered a glimpse of what can happen in a much broader way to the waters of this whole bay.”
The governor said that for all the gains in the past two decades in reducing other types of Chesapeake Bay pollution, addressing septic system contamination was one area in which “we are totally failing.”
"It's time we address it, because the projections are that over the next 25 years, three-quarters of the new nitrogen load into the bay caused by sewage systems will come from septic systems, even though only about 20 percent of the new [homes] will be on septic systems," O'Malley said. "If we don't act now, the problem is going to become so immense that we'll never catch up."
O’Malley’s bill calls for outlawing construction of new septic systems in developments with five or more homes, and requiring anyone building two or more homes to use more expensive technology to limit nitrogen emissions.
Republicans have blasted the proposal as an assault on rural homeowners, and many Democrats were also reluctant to support it.
In and around Goldsboro, the state wants to replace about 80 septic systems with a $25 million wastewater treatment plant. Most homes in the town are on small lots with inadequate space for septic systems, and the soil in the area has a high groundwater table. The lake is downstream of the town.
John Merson, a construction worker who purchased the 140-acre plot encompassing the lake in October and waded into alongside O’Malley, said he hoped that the state was serious about the cleanup, but was concerned about the costs.
“I’m asking the same questions you are: ‘What’s the cost and how are we going to pay for it,’ ” he said.
But Merson said he was willing to pay a share. “It’s a beautiful property,” he said. “I have an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old. I don’t want to leave it for them like this.”
O’Malley is scheduled to testify in favor of the legislation Friday.
Aides said it was his idea to wade into the lake.
“Regardless of what version of the legislation passes, the governor wanted to demonstrate that he’s serious about this,” said one aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The aide was referring to an amendment that would require the proposed ban be studied until next year.