Saving the Bay: Maryland's septic-tank law will help clean the great waterway.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

THE CHESAPEAKE Bay Foundation issued its annual State of the Bay report last week. Just as in years past, its namesake waterway got a grade of D. "That the Chesapeake Bay, a national treasure, remains in critical condition is outrageous," said foundation president Will Baker upon the report's release. "It is a national disgrace." Mr. Baker called for more aggressive action from the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up the bay.

Meanwhile, a new Maryland law on septic tanks passed at the end of the legislative session will have a positive impact. Septic systems being built or replaced for homes within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries will have to be upgraded to remove nitrogen. This mandate is already in place in Anne Arundel, Queen Anne's and Worcester counties. All told, there are an estimated 50,000 septic tanks in the "critical area." According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, while just 7 percent of nitrogen pollution comes from septic systems in Maryland, that percentage jumps to between 25 and 30 percent for some of the rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. This oxygen-depleting pollutant also comes from runoff from area farms. So does phosphorus. Both elements feed dead zones in the bay that have killed fish and choked other life. The 64,000-square-mile watershed's problems are exacerbated by the flood of warm and polluted runoff from paved surfaces thanks to overdevelopment.

The state will help homeowners upgrade their septic systems through the Bay Restoration Fund, if funding is available. Still, opponents of the legislation pointed to the potential financial burden the new law would impose on homeowners. No doubt they will oppose other expenditures needed to clean the Chesapeake Bay as onerous on economically distressed taxpayers. While understandable, such resistance is misguided.

A poll conducted for the Chesapeake Bay Trust and released last week showed that 86 percent of Maryland residents surveyed rated "making the Chesapeake Bay clean and healthy" as "extremely" or "very" important. Sixty-eight percent of respondents support new state spending to address water pollution. The popular support is out there to restore a once-pristine bay. Now all that's needed is more political courage and bold action to make it happen.

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