The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) will be advocating for five priority bills designed to bolster the Bay’s natural filters and improve water quality during the 2023 Maryland General Assembly session.
Natural filters are plants or organisms capable of removing Chesapeake Bay-choking water pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus by purifying air and water. CBF’s 2022 State of the Bay report found an urgent need to expand the use of natural filters, which are often the most cost-effective methods to clean our waterways. This year, CBF is focusing on legislation to better protect trees and forested land, increase the use of living shorelines along Maryland waterfront, and support the oyster aquaculture industry.
These investments in long-term natural filters will help Maryland reach the requirements of the 2025 Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and mitigate the harmful effects of climate change.
Strengthen forest protections:
Forested land in Maryland is being lost at an alarming rate. A new study released in 2022 by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology at the University of Maryland found that the state lost nearly 19,000 acres of forest and other tree canopy from 2013 to 2018, with much of that loss concentrated in growing suburban counties near Washington, D.C.
Maryland’s continuing loss of forested land makes the state more vulnerable to the harm caused by climate change such as increasing temperatures and stronger storms that bring greater flooding risks. Trees and, to a greater extent, forest ecosystems filter air and water, provide habitat, reduce erosion, and improve human health and well-being. Trees can provide more of these benefits as they grow older and larger, underscoring the importance of protecting Maryland’s existing forested land rather than using sapling replacement for trees that have been removed.
SB526/HB723 – Forest Preservation and Retention
This new bill would update the state’s outdated 1991 Forest Conservation Act to better define and protect contiguous forests and tree canopy. The legislation aims to reverse the long-term loss of forested land from development activity and allow restoration efforts to move the state toward net gain of forest cover and tree canopy. It does this by raising the bar for forest protection while giving counties and municipalities the flexibility to create specific plans to meet forest retention goals. The bill helps combat fragmentation of forest patches and recognizes the important role trees play in urban and suburban communities by incentivizing protections for this vital foliage.
“Forests are among the most critical natural resources to protect Maryland from climate change,” said Erik Fisher, CBF’s interim Maryland Executive Director. “If we continue to lose tree cover and forested land at the rate we have in the past, our efforts to safeguard communities against flooding and excessive heat, protect wildlife, and clean up the Chesapeake Bay will be more difficult and expensive. We urge legislators to support this bill that will better protect the state’s forested land and tree canopy while providing cities and counties with the flexibility needed to effectively manage growth.”
Promote living shorelines:
Throughout Maryland, armored shorelines such as rip rap and bulkheads remain a primary approach to protect properties from erosion instead of living shorelines composed of sand, grasses, and other natural elements. Living shorelines provide more environmental benefits and flooding protection than armored alternatives.
Hardened shorelines compose more than 1,000 miles of Maryland’s 7,000 miles of coastline, despite Maryland law requiring living shorelines as the primary option for coastal resilience. Maryland’s Department of Environment (MDE) routinely grants waivers for property owners to authorize armored shorelines rather than living shorelines.
SB417/HB602 – State Wetlands and Shoreline Restoration
This new bill aims to curb the continued widespread use of armored shorelines and clarify existing law by directing the installation of shorelines that increase the resilience of the land and natural habitat. The legislation also calls on MDE to identify priority restoration zones where adding living shorelines would prevent erosion and improve habitat connections between land and water.
Lastly, the bill would invigorate a Maryland program to provide financial assistance to residents who replace a hardened shoreline with a living shoreline in a priority restoration zone.
“Constructing more living shorelines and expanding wetlands are our best ways to prepare Maryland’s coastline as sea levels rise due to climate change,” said Doug Myers, CBF’s Maryland Senior Scientist. “Scientists predict sea levels in cherished coastal areas such as Annapolis will rise 1.5 feet by 2050 and 3 feet by 2100, which would overwhelm our current infrastructure. If we continue armoring our shorelines in the face of this reality, we’ll displace floodwaters to communities that can’t afford to build ever-higher sea walls. Prioritizing living shorelines now will ensure more impactful solutions are in place as threats to Maryland’s coastal communities continue to grow.”
Expand oyster aquaculture:
CBF is pursuing a package of three bills this year geared toward boosting the state’s oyster aquaculture industry. Since 2012, the state’s oyster aquaculture industry has grown by about 24 percent per year. With continued growth, the industry has the potential to substantially contribute to oyster recovery in the Bay and to Maryland’s economy, according to an economic analysis commissioned by CBF in 2020.
Maryland has an opportunity this year to increase the amount of Bay floor used for aquaculture conservation and improve opportunity within the industry.
SB437 – Reforming Aquaculture Leasing and Increasing Industry Representation
This bill would streamline the state’s approval process for aquaculture leasing, ensuring that applications that meet all regulatory requirements and receive no protests are processed within six months. Currently, some new businesses wait years for oyster aquaculture lease applications to be approved. The bill further directs state agencies to identify state-owned land with waterfront appropriate for aquaculture leasing and directs leases adjacent to those lands to be fast-tracked. Finally, this bill adds representation for the aquaculture industry to key advisory boards and commissions to make sure the needs of the growing industry are considered in state policy making.
SB433 – Woman- and Minority-Owned Shellfish Aquaculture Enterprise Fund
To assist individuals who have historically been underrepresented in the state’s commercial fishing industry, this bill would provide zero interest loans up to $50,000 to new aquaculture businesses owned by a woman or minority community member. This will help entrepreneurs make critical start-up investments in equipment, infrastructure, training, or staff to start or expand their oyster aquaculture business. This program would work with existing loan programs to create new opportunities in this growing industry for women and minority business owners.
SB434 – Restorative Aquaculture Pilot Program
This third piece of oyster aquaculture-related legislation would create a pilot program to provide financial incentives for aquaculture businesses that achieve similar oyster population and habitat improvements as oyster reef restoration projects. This program creates a win-win situation by keeping water-purifying oysters in the Bay for longer periods of time.
“Oyster aquaculture is a restorative industry in which business owners invest their own capital to add oysters to Maryland waters,” said CBF’s Maryland Senior Fisheries Scientist Allison Colden. “It makes sense for the state to make targeted investments to accelerate the industry’s growth. Making oyster aquaculture leases easier to obtain and helping entrepreneurs start new businesses are effective ways to do just that.”
State Budget Priorities:
CBF is also urging state lawmakers to support the following items as part of the budget process:
- Increased staffing for pollution control and water quality inspectors.
- $15 million to continue planting new trees under the Tree Solutions Now Act so Maryland can meet its goal of planting 10 million trees during the next decade.
- $2 million for a new Bay Bottom Survey to update maps from the 1970s and 1980s to help identify oyster and underwater grass habitat.
- Fully funding the Bay Restoration Fund, Program Open Space, and the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays 2010 Trust Fund.