The capitol dome in Annapolis viewed from Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Donna Rice.
2014 Maryland Legislative Session Wrapup
Sometimes status quo is a good thing. In an election year it can even be viewed as success.
This year's session of the Maryland General Assembly was a success because it sustained the substantial progress we achieved over the past few years. We fought off attempts to derail that progress. We kept important programs funded at current or expanded levels. Where necessary, we made compromises, but never on fundamental issues.
Reducing Polluted Runoff
Defense of the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program was CBF's top priority in the legislative session that ended April 7, and we succeeded. Despite fierce attacks against the "rain tax" law passed in 2012 CBF and our partners helped defeat 20 bills to repeal or weaken that law.
CBF and its partners also blunted a last-ditch maneuver during the budget process that would have weakened the law. In the end there was a compromise that clarifies only two counties—Carroll and Frederick—have flexibility on how they pay for critical, pollution reduction measures. But those counties still must do the work necessary to clean their local waters.
The legislature also approved record state spending to help reduce polluted runoff, including 39.4 million in the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund and 25 million in capital funding that will help local governments and an additional 45 million in the Capital funding for Maryland State Highway Administration to address its polluted runoff. Attempts to scale back that funding were defeated.
Polluted runoff is the main source of pollution to many urban and suburban rivers and creeks. (See how polluted runoff affects your local rivers and creeks.) Dedicated local funding combined with substantial state funding to fix that problem will provide a huge boon to residents in our cities and suburbs, and to the Bay. With this funding local governments can repair badly neglected stormwater pipes and culverts, but also install modern "green infrastructure" at important drainage points to soak up and treat the runoff.
Other Session Highlights
This session was also about balancing individual wants with the common good. These compromises will help watermen, farmers and others, but not at the expense of our progress toward clean water, healthy fisheries and sustainable communities.
- Oyster restoration: Rather than passing a bill that would have put the state's oyster restoration plan at risk, a compromise was reached that addresses concerns of both watermen and restoration advocates. Local watermen will receive 60,000 bushels of fresh shell to use at will, whether for aquaculture or to set on reefs to grow new oysters in the wild. A joint pilot project between the Department of Natural Resources and the watermen will receive an additional 20,000 bushels of shell. The project will be used to determine if natural repopulation in the wild can produce more oysters than using fresh shell in the state's hatchery. This compromise retains most of the 400,000 bushels of available shells for more scientifically sound oyster production on sanctuary reefs and through oyster farming. Learn more about CBF's oyster restoration efforts.
- Wastewater: Legislation passed that will permit the use of state funds to help pay for limited hook-ups to local sewer systems for houses on failing septics. These connections can only be made in instances where the public health is at risk. In order to use these funds, however, local governments must avoid opening up new areas to development and must demonstrate that running a new sewer line to a limited number of homes will result in a net reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
- Land preservation and renewable energy: Since 1977, the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Program has purchased easements for more than 295,000 acres of farmland, protecting that land from development and preserving Maryland’s rich agricultural heritage. Over the past few years, several bills have been put forward that would have opened up these protected farms to unlimited development for commercial renewable energy generation. CBF has worked to defeat these bills. This year, a compromise policy passed allowing farmers who have land preservation easements to lease out a limited amount of that land (no more than 5 acres total) for renewable energy projects. In return, the energy companies must provide additional funds for land conservation. The policy has a five-year sunset period, after which it will be reviewed to see what impact it has had on Maryland’s land preservation efforts.
- Phosphorous pollution: Leading up to this session, and in its initial weeks, there was much debate over whether or not the science demonstrated that Maryland needed to better manage phosphorous on our farms. Many farms apply manure to their fields as fertilizer, often resulting in high concentrations of phosphorus runoff into nearby streams. CBF stands by the science and are pleased that the debate seems to be shifting from whether or not we need a new tool for managing phosphorus levels to a discussion of the impacts that tool has on the farming community and what resources are needed to help transition to a new phosphorus management tool. In response to concerns over proposed state regulations of phosphorus application on farmlands, legislators agreed to an economic study of the impact the new regulations would have on farmers; no bills passed to do away with or delay the new management tool. This study will also examine the impact the regulations would have for reaching pollution reduction requirements by 2025.
But there's never a chance to rest. In the coming months we will educate candidates in the primary and general elections for governor and legislative seats on efforts to restore the Bay and specific next steps they can take to advance progress. We will push the Maryland Department of Environmental Protection to hold local governments more accountable for progress reducing polluted runoff. And we'll attempt to fend off egregious sprawl development plans in Charles County, one of many local issues in which we'll be involved.