New sewer policies will require working smarter

July 06, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

On June 20, the Washington County Commissioners met for a final workshop on the rural rezoning plan they will vote on July 12.

During that session, Commissioner Doris Nipps and others on the county board discussed new state rules regarding sewer plant discharges.

They said each county would be given a limit on how much nitrogen and phosphorous could be dumped into the streams that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

Once the sewer plant was at its rated capacity, that would be it. No expansions of existing plants and no new plants.

The bad news is that this policy could torpedo the plan to direct new development to the Urban Growth Area around Hagerstown. If local governments can't provide sewer service, more homes will be built with septic tanks, in areas far from the UGA.


The good news in this story, according to state officials, is that the limits aren't as rigid as the commissioners believe. However, they will require local officials to work on the problem in new ways.

For an explanation of the issue, I talked to Robert Summers, director of the Water Management Administration of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Summer said the new limits on discharges come as a result of federal legislation.

"Actually, the federal Clean Water Act has a requirement that states must adopt standards to prevent discharges of pollutants," he said.

Right now, Summers said, the state is asking for comments on a series of water-quality standards for the bay and its tributaries that will require "nutrient-loading limits."

Why should anyone care about nutrient discharge? Because nutrients cloud the water and adversely affect the development of Chesapeake Bay grasses and other underwater plant life that serve as food and cover for fish and other marine life.

But Summer said this program isn't just about the bay. Every body of water in the state, from Antietam Creek to the Potomac River, could stand to have its water quality improved, he said.

Fortunately, there are funds available to help, courtesy of the "flush tax" passed in 2004.

Sewer users pay $2.50 a month while septic tank users will pay $30 a year beginning Oct. 1.

Summers said the sewer users' fee will generate $50 million, which will be used to upgrade the state's 66 major sewer plants.

The fee paid by septic tank users will generate $12 million, Summers said.

Of that, 60 percent will go to upgrade existing septic tanks by adding a nitrogen-removal system or paying the difference between a conventional septic system, which costs between $3,000 and $5,000, and the nitrogen-removing system, which can cost $10,000 to $15,000.

(The other 40 percent of the fee proceeds will go toward the use of cover crops that reduce the amount of farm runoff.)

Why would you upgrade your septic system if you don't have to? Maybe you're an environmentalist or maybe you want to do it before it goes from being voluntary to compulsory.

Or maybe elected officials will give you another incentive to do so. That's because, as Summers explained to me, if local governments can reduce nutrient pollution from other sources, they can apply the "savings" elsewhere.

Summers agreed with me that if pollution from septic tanks can be reduced enough, it might make sense to hook up more homeowners to municipal sewer.

Cover-crop programs are really effective, Summers said, and can be easily monitored for their effectiveness.

So, no, the state isn't going to stop development, but these programs are going to require local governments that want to develop in one area to find those nutrient savings in another.

Summers didn't say it, but my guess is that very soon the nitrogen-removing septic tanks will be required on all new construction, so upgrading now might make sense.

Doing it later, as I found out when my septic tank failed several years ago, isn't any cheaper, nor could I apply for a grant to help with the $5,000 cost.

If you're not a developer, you may view all of this as a lucky accident. Just when new construction seemed poised to outstrip the capacity of local roads, schools, etc., along come the feds to put on the brakes.

Don't celebrate too soon. The development of new technology accelerates when there's money to be made. And in this case, the inventor who finds a way to take more nutrients out of wastewater will reap a harvest of cash.

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Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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