Maryland remains on track to meet its overall 2025 pollution-reduction commitments. However, there are red flags. The state’s progress relies heavily on technology upgrades at wastewater treatment plants, but operational failures at two of the largest plants jeopardize its gains. Moreover, this one sector alone cannot sustain progress over the long term. Agricultural pollution is declining as more conservation practices are placed on farms, though not fast enough to meet the state’s commitments. And polluted runoff from urban and suburban areas is growing. Maryland must broaden its pollution-reduction strategy to manage these sources, blunt the effects of climate change, and ensure all communities benefit from investments in clean water.
Maryland’s Progress Toward Pollution Reductions
We used the Chesapeake Bay Program’s scientific model to estimate pollution reductions made between 2009 and 2021 and if those reductions are on a trajectory to meet the 2025 commitments. Maryland’s pollution-reduction progress is summarized in the table below.
|Agriculture||In Danger||Off Track|
|Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff||Off Track and Pollution Increasing||Off Track|
|Wastewater & Combined Sewer Outfall||On Track||In Danger|
|Overall||On Track||On Track|
|Off Track||Projected loads more than 25% off target or pollution is increasing|
|In Danger of Being Off Track||Projected loads within 10-25% of target|
|On Track||Projected loads less than 10% off target|
|N/A||No contribution from this source sector|
Evaluating Maryland’s Milestone Commitments
After examining the results of the Chesapeake Bay Program's scientific model to estimate pollution reductions statewide and for each sector (see chart above), we evaluated Maryland’s implementation of the programmatic commitments it made in its 2021 and 2022 milestones—in other words, the practices and policies the state will use to get the job done. The following is our analysis of key Maryland commitments.
Upgrades to wastewater treatment plants have achieved about half of the total pollution reductions Maryland needs to meet its 2025 commitments. Recent operational failures at some systems underscore the importance of consistent funding, inspections, and maintenance to sustain progress.
Commitment: Upgrade nutrient removal technology at wastewater treatment plants to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
Progress: IN DANGER OF BEING OFF TRACK
Steps taken: Maryland and its local jurisdictions have upgraded 64 of the state’s 67 largest plants and a collection of smaller facilities. A law passed by the General Assembly in 2022 strengthened standards for inspection and enforcement.
Steps needed: Breakdowns at several plants triggered public health warnings and put Maryland in danger of missing its 2025 commitment to reduce phosphorus pollution in wastewater. Maryland relies on well-functioning wastewater treatment facilities to achieve its Blueprint commitments and offset additional pollution from land development and climate change. The state must fully apply the new inspection and enforcement provisions, while also diversifying its pollution-reduction strategy beyond wastewater.
Urban/Suburban Polluted Runoff
Runoff from developed lands is now Maryland’s second-largest pollution source, surpassing wastewater. New construction and lagging efforts to reduce pollution in established neighborhoods mean that this pollution source could further increase. Proposed permit renewals for local stormwater systems, construction activity, and industrial sites are insufficient to protect and restore water quality.
Commitment: Issue new permits with updated requirements to reduce polluted runoff in urban and suburban areas.
Progress: OFF TRACK
Steps taken: The state issued draft permits for some counties with large Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4s), which are the collection of storm drains, pipes, and other structures cities use to direct the flow of rain off of streets, buildings, and other hard surfaces into nearby waterways. These permits are insufficient. They cut in half the pace at which populated areas are required to reduce polluted runoff from hard surfaces. They also allow counties to comply by using practices that do not reduce runoff—such as stream restoration, street sweeping, or the purchase of water-quality credits from wastewater treatment plants.
Steps needed: The state must modernize these permits by requiring counties to directly reduce the volume of stormwater and prioritize pollution-trapping practices like bioswales and tree plantings. Permits governing large or complex construction sites and industrial facilities should also contain site-specific requirements that prevent excessive cumulative damage or degradation of Maryland’s few remaining high-quality watersheds.
Operational improvements on farms, like cover crops and phosphorus management, have resulted in significant pollution reductions. To ensure long-term benefits, Maryland must also restore natural filters, such as streamside forest buffers, and help farmers build healthy soils that support clean water.
Commitment: Increase natural filters on agricultural land.
Progress: On Track
Steps taken: Maryland has substantially strengthened cost-share assistance for farmers to implement conservation practices that create natural filters, like tree plantings,on their land. The state is also expanding the personnel dedicated to helping farmers access these dollars.
Steps needed: While support for natural filters on farms has increased, the state’s implementation goals for these practices remain unacceptably low. Maryland should work to increase enrollment in the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), where participation is currently far below the target. Deploying tools and incentives to target the most effective practices in the most effective locations could also accelerate restoration progress.
Commitment: Advance practices that build healthy soils.
Progress: IN DANGER OF BEING OFF TRACK
Steps taken: The state established a Healthy Soils Program to improve productivity and carbon storage on Maryland farms. In 2022, the General Assembly passed legislation that directed $500,000 annually to healthy soils initiatives to address climate change.
Steps needed: Maryland can better utilize its agricultural cost-share program to increase implementation of practices that promote soil heath and clean water. The program should fully support planting multi-species cover crops, including methods that allow farmers to plant cover crops earlier and remove them later, resulting in living roots year-round. Financial and technical assistance should prioritize a systems approach to farming by supporting suites of practices that minimize soil disturbance, maximize plant diversity, and mitigate climate change while restoring the Bay.
Finishing the Job in Maryland
Maryland remains largely on track to meet its overall 2025 pollution-reduction commitments, thanks to long-term commitments to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and adopt conservation practices on farms. Finishing the job requires diversifying the state’s pollution-reduction strategy and a stronger focus on lasting practices with multiple benefits for communities and climate—such as tree plantings, wetlands, and pasture establishment. The state must also counter increased pollution from climate change and land development to sustain progress.
The following actions are needed now:
- Protect and invest in natural filters like forest buffers, pastures, wetlands, and healthy soils. Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act, which governs the loss and replacement of woodlands during construction, is far outdated and must be strengthened. Policies and investments to expand natural filters in shoreline areas can increase coastal resilience to climate change-induced flooding and erosion.
- Improve regulations that manage polluted runoff during and after construction, and modernize permits for municipal stormwater systems to better manage the increased volumes of pollution from intense storms associated with climate change.
- Fully implement new goals for tree planting and climate protection, including the state’s commitment to plant five million trees by 2031. These critical initiatives will help farmers, local governments, and urban communities increase tree canopy and make other changes that reduce pollution and strengthen resilience to climate change.