Dirty Water

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

THE METROPOLITAN area's waterways are losing the fight against pollution. After years of improvement, the Potomac Conservancy slapped its namesake river with a D-plus grade. The Patuxent River earned the same grade last month from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. The Chesapeake Bay was given a D by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, while a recent review of the Chesapeake Bay Program showed that it hasn't been nearly as successful in cleaning up pollution as it proclaims. The explosion of development deserves much of the blame.

"Patuxent 20/20," a report from Patuxent Riverkeeper, notes that there has been a 136 percent jump in population in that river's watershed between 1970 and 2000, with an additional 22 percent increase expected by 2020. Meanwhile, environmentalists point out that the population in the Chesapeake Bay's 14,700-square-mile watershed has more than doubled, to 16.7 million people, since 1950. By 2020, it's estimated that the number will climb 20 percent further. Sure, agricultural waste from farms and pollutants from industrial facilities play a big part in fouling the waters of the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. But with all those people come buildings, roads and large amounts of unfiltered pollutants that are damaging the waterways.

Officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District are beginning to take the threat seriously. In a special legislative session last fall, Maryland lawmakers set aside $50 million annually for bay restoration, but without specifying how or where the funds are to be used. It's critical they be spent in accordance with best scientific practices, not political convenience.

In addition, the state's Stormwater Management Act of 2007 mandates green development practices to lessen the impact of polluted stormwater runoff into streams, rivers and the bay. In February, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) instituted BayStat, a monthly meeting of the state's top officials charged with the increasingly tough task of cleaning up the Chesapeake. And the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) now recommends that its member jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings in new construction. The benefit is green-building standards that would encourage such features as water-absorbent roofs, which make buildings more energy efficient, as well as the use of recycled construction material and solar systems.

These efforts will take time. Maryland's Department of the Environment is still devising the regulations for compliance with the stormwater law. Adoption of those rules won't be completed until next December. And COG's members are under no legal obligation to follow its recommendations, though many are already doing so, and the rest are expected to follow suit. They should pick up the pace. The waters of the Potomac, Patuxent and Chesapeake will get dirtier if public officials in cities and towns along their banks and tributaries don't move with deliberate speed to mitigate the damage done by the communities' enormous growth.

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