The following first appeared in the Star Democrat.
The Talbot County Council has been presented a golden opportunity. Other local governments would be green with envy at such a gift.
Talbot has been offered the chance to significantly reduce pollution to local creeks and rivers at a cut-rate price. In the expensive world of Chesapeake Bay restoration, it's like winning the lottery.
We urge the county council to take advantage of this opportunity.
The gift-horse in this case is a proposal to convert roadside ditches in the county into pollution filters. Talbot has about 370 miles of county roads that are lined by such trenches. They channel rain water from roads and farm fields into nearby creeks and rivers. The trouble is that runoff in these ditches also contains lots of pollution--oil, exhaust particles, fertilizer, and manure.
The county engineer has proposed a solution--one already proven in other areas of the country. Ditches could be modified slightly to soak up pollution before it reaches the creeks. This is low-tech, common sense, high-efficiency innovation. It's the kind of ingenuity for which Americans were once famous, farmers especially.
Maybe that's why Talbot farmers such as John Swaine, chairman of the board of supervisors at the Talbot Soil Conservation District, are in support of the proposal.
The ditch work would be focused on stretches of ditches where pollution is worst, making the strategy all the more cost effective.
There are several techniques available to turn the ditches into filters. One popular one used widely in agricultural ditches in the Midwest is to enlarge the ditch just enough so runoff has more space and time to soak into the ground. The county, along with The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have been working on pilot projects to ensure this "two-stage ditch" technology and other similar approaches would work here.
The price to convert 150 of the most polluted ditches would be about $3 million--paid for in small increments over 30 years.
That's a bargain compared to many other strategies to clean up local water. For example, the price tag for upgrading the Easton sewage plant in 2007 was about $40 million. And polluted runoff is a particularly expensive type of pollution to reduce using traditional methods. But under the ditch program, county staff estimated that tens of millions of dollars could be saved over conventional techniques, reducing costs an estimated 90 percent.
The ditch program also could create jobs--for engineers, heavy equipment operators, and laborers.
Given all this you'd think the Talbot County Council would be embracing the proposal whole-heartedly. It's the kind of smart investment any smart businessman would recognize. But the council has not revealed its position.
The council's draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year is being released on April 14. Whether or not that budget will illustrate a firm commitment to cleaning up Talbot's polluted rivers is uncertain. We can only hope the council isn't penny wise and pound foolish.
If the Talbot council rejects the ditch program, the hundreds of miles of trenches will remain a problem. They will continue to sluice pollution straight into our local waters where we swim, where crabs and oysters try to survive.
We hope the council sees the wisdom of spending smart now in order to save money long term.
With rivers such as the Choptank getting more polluted, it's time for action in Talbot County. The ditch program not only is cost effective, it's inspiring. It will provide an example to other communities around Eastern Shore and throughout the region. On the Shore we have plenty of ditches, but too often a shortage of political will to act for clean water.
--Alan Girard, CBF's Eastern Shore Director