The eleventh hour passage of a bill that helps reduce polluted runoff from cities and suburbs in Maryland capped a surprisingly successful session for the Chesapeake Bay in the Maryland General Assembly.
The House and Senate gave final approval to SB 863, which lets Baltimore City and the state's nine most populated counties decide how they want to pay for programs to reduce polluted runoff, but holds them more accountable for doing the job. That is a major victory for the Chesapeake Bay. Polluted runoff is the main source of contamination for many urban and suburban creeks and rivers. Yet for years local governments have neglected upkeep to their stormwater systems, and failed to meet clean-up goals set by state and federal law.
"We were holding our breath for the past few days and hours. The stormwater bill is a remarkable victory. What a turnaround for Bay issues this session," said Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF).
"We are grateful to Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch for their leadership on this bill. We also appreciate the help of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs and House Environment and Transportation committees," Prost said.
The session also was notable for work to reduce pollution from manure used on farm fields. Senator Pinsky and Delegate Lafferty were the chief sponsors of legislation to require farmers to apply only the amount of manure on their fields which crops can use. The bill was amended by the Senate environmental committee. That process helped bring farmers and environmentalists to the table. It also helped improve draft regulations Governor Hogan had announced. The Maryland Department of Agriculture published these improved regulations as draft on April 3rd. That initiative is expected to yield major improvements long-term in water quality in creeks and rivers on the Eastern Shore, and ultimately in the Bay.
Poultry manure contains high levels of phosphorus. Many fields of the Eastern Shore are saturated with phosphorus from years of over-application. Crops can't utilize the additional phosphorus. The excess phosphorus washes off into nearby creeks and rivers, and sparks dead zones of low oxygen. The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimated 228,000 tons of excess manure are applied to fields each year on the Shore.
Together, the efforts undertaken by the Maryland General Assembly and Governor Hogan address two of the biggest sources of pollution entering the Chesapeake–farms and urban areas.
But at the beginning of the session prospects were far from rosy. Hogan had vowed to repeal landmark legislation approved in 2012 to deal with polluted runoff. That legislation had been attacked unfairly and inaccurately for more than a year as a tax on rain. Some legislators sympathized with that attack. The governor also had rejected an earlier version of manure regulations.
"Legislative leaders heard our concerns on the stormwater issue. The original bill could have been a big setback for cleaning up waters in populated areas. They made substantial improvements in the bill," Prost said. "And Governor Hogan and lawmakers also listened to us on the manure issue. We started this session in rough waters and thankfully for the environment cooler heads and calmer winds prevailed."
Other environmental successes this session include the passage of:
Budget—Governor's Hogan's budget as introduced reflected the state's commitment to cleaning up the Bay and our local rivers and streams. That funding has been largely left intact. Under the leadership of Chairwoman McIntosh and the House Appropriations Committee, the budget as passed also partially restored funding for our critical land preservation funding.
SB200—This bill prohibits the manufacture and sale of personal care products that contain nonbiodegradable synthetic plastic "microbeads." These tiny objects pass through wastewater treatments plants and end up in local waters and the Chesapeake Bay. Once in the water these beads chemically attract additional pollutants and enter the food chain when they are consumed by marine life.
HB449—This bill prohibits the state of Maryland from issuing permits for the unconventional hydraulic fracturing exploration and production of natural gas until October 2017. During that time the state must explore and develop protective regulations.
HB287—This bill benefits the growing oyster aquaculture industry by expanding penalties for poaching. Aquaculture is beneficial to the Bay's health by increasing the natural oyster filtration function while decreasing harvest pressure on the natural oyster population.
CBF also helped defeat several bad bills that would opened up oyster sanctuaries to harvest and would have undone the state's highly successful oyster restoration programs.