Chesapeake Bay blowup: How to trap pollutant-filled rain

Kent Island development hugs a Chesapeake Bay tributary.
Kent Island development hugs a Chesapeake Bay tributary. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010

At the start of a critical political year for the Chesapeake Bay, the first big skirmish is about what to do with the rain.

It's an odd-sounding issue, but a real one: When rain falls on cities and suburbs in the bay's vast watershed, it washes road grease, trash and pet waste into storm sewers and then into bay tributaries.

Maryland and Virginia want real estate developers to trap that water, shunt it into grassy fields or gravelly pits and let it sink in naturally.

Environmentalists have applauded that idea. But developers think new requirements set by the states are too tough -- and could backfire by encouraging sprawl.

This bi-state debate could be an early test of the Chesapeake's actual political capital in a year when new, sweeping plans to save the estuary will hit opposition from builders, farmers and budget-conscious governments.

"Everyone has said, 'We recognize we need to do more' " to help the bay, said Ann Pesiri Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a group of state legislators that helps guide the cleanup effort. "What does 'more' mean?"

In Virginia, the new rules were approved by former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D), but a state board effectively suspended them. On Friday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he will reevaluate the issue.

Officials in Maryland have not backed away from the new regulations, although they say they will do a better job explaining them to developers. But developers say they hope to change the regulations through lobbying or legislation.

Last year, President Obama and state officials pledged an ambitious re-boot of the government effort to clean the Chesapeake -- one that has lasted 25 years and failed to significantly improve the estuary. Now, those grand promises are likely to break down into a number of smaller fights.

In Annapolis last month, watermen marched on the State House to protest plans to establish larger "sanctuaries" for the oyster population. And in Richmond, state legislators effectively killed two proposals to curb the harvest of a fish called menhaden.

Still, the most important battle will probably come over storm sewers. They contribute about 20 percent of the pollutants that lead to "dead zones" in the Chesapeake, according to the EPA. And the problem has worsened even as pollution has been cut somewhat from sources, such as farms and sewage plants.

"It's just carrying a direct source of untreated pollution right into the bay," said Jenn Aiosa, a Chesapeake Bay Foundation staffer who has pushed for tougher rules in Maryland. She said developers have the same responsibility to cut pollution as do farmers and sewage plants.

The new Maryland regulations are generally tougher than Virginia's, officials familiar with them said. But both would require developers to install such items as "green roofs" -- covered in sod and plants -- or pits lined with dirt, gravel or vegetation, which would help water filter naturally into the ground.

In both states, however, developers have said these measures could add costs, by requiring redesigns of projects already on the drawing board or by taking away land they might have used for a building or parking space.

"It's obviously cheaper to comply with these regulations in a place where you have a lot more land," said Barrett Hardiman of the Home Builders Association of Virginia.

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