By the end of the year, Frederick County’s state-mandated stormwater permit will have reached the end of its life cycle and the county will be waiting for the Maryland Department of the Environment to issue a new one.
As Maryland completes a planning document with broader goals to restore the Chesapeake Bay, however, the state’s largest jurisdictions — including Frederick County — are trying to determine the compatibility between the plan and the pending permits. With public comment on the broad guidance plan now open, there may be only a small window for the counties to compare the two and comment.
“We don’t know what our next-generation permit looks like. They haven’t shown it to us yet,” said Don Dorsey, who co-runs the capital improvements program for Frederick County’s stormwater permit at the Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources.
The permit is known as the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System — or MS4 — and it is the implementation document that all large and small jurisdictions must use to treat surfaces impervious to water in order to reduce harmful runoff into nearby waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. More than 90 percent of Maryland’s developed land falls under an MS4, and they are legally enforceable. Frederick County’s permit expires in December, but the state’s plan is set to be finalized in August.
Leaders from the Maryland departments of environment, natural resources, agriculture and planning gathered local implementation experts and stakeholders from western Maryland at Hagerstown Community College on Monday to review the overarching goals of the new plan, known as the Watershed Implementation Plan. It is the third, and final phase of a multi-state agreement signed in 2010 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
With only one document in hand, it was hard to see how the two would eventually align.
“Will we have time to look at the accounting for stormwater guidelines with those reductions and have the opportunity to utilize that new information prior to this [plan] going into play?” Dorsey asked the panel of agency leaders on Monday.
Yes and no. The Watershed Implementation Plan is an overarching planning document and won’t have details from every MS4 permit before it is completed. However, the agencies are trying to make the plan as close to what will eventually go in those permits, said Greg Busch, the deputy manager of the Integrated Water Planning Program at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The new permits are also promised to better align with what local jurisdictions think they can reasonably achieve. Frederick County sued the state in 2015 over the details of its original permit, which required 20 percent of all existing impervious surface to be restored — as was the standard for all MS4 permits at the time. The county lost its case and appealed, which was heard by the Court of Appeals in September 2018, The News-Post previously reported.
“We found in phase two that we set some targets that weren’t really achievable for some local jurisdictions. So we wanted to take a step back, learn from that and engage with our local partners and see what was really a feasible, or practicable, implementation for that sector,” said Matt Rowe, assistant director of the Water and Science Administration at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Maryland’s nutrient and sediment reductions will be spread across multiple sectors of the economy to reach its target of sending no more than 45.8 million pounds of total nitrogen and 3.68 million pounds of total phosphorus to the bay by 2025.
To put 45.8 million pounds in context, that would be equal to dumping the weight of 508 Boeing airplanes into the bay.
Agriculture and wastewater treatment plants will provide the greatest sources of reduction, as they have in the past, which was a source of frustration and also exception among farmers.
Maryland’s agricultural sector was assigned to reduce 4.4 million pounds of nitrogen (20 percent decline from 2017 levels), 0.17 million pounds of phosphorus (27 percent decline from 2017 levels) and 75 million pounds of sediment (29 percent decline from 2017 levels) each year through 2025.
“I don’t think [the Maryland Department of Agriculture] would have given us that number unless we could achieve it. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take buy-in,” said Colby Ferguson, the government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau and a local farmer.
He was more concerned with the use of “buzzwords” that seemed to be poorly defined in the Watershed Implementation Plan or by the agencies themselves. Talk of “comprehensive soil health” is one of them.
“I’m worried, what does that mean? Does that mean we’re going to couch some types of agriculture?” Ferguson said.
Some of the high-reduction practices on agricultural land — such as converting cropland to pasture or planting forest tree buffers — can be economically infeasible for some farmers, Ferguson said. He did not dispute that they are effective, just that it may not be practical for a commodity farmer to reduce their productive acres and remain in business.
Rob Schnabel, the watershed restoration scientist and Chesapeake streams manager for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, was disappointed to see the agricultural sector commit so little to some of the highest reducing strategies.
Thirteen counties and Baltimore city made no commitment to plant any forested buffers along waterways before 2025. Forest buffers with stream-side exclusion fencing is the top nitrogen reduction technique and removes 209.6 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
Frederick County farmers committed in September 2018 to planting 575 acres, mostly at Schnabel’s request, The News-Post previously reported. Carroll County also committed to 336 acres and Washington County to 247 acres.
“I was at Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties, which is why those numbers are higher. ... But the state needs to push some of this,” Schnabel said on Monday.
He also wanted to see the state incentivize the conversion of cropland to pasture, which was previously planned to increase 14,800 acres between 2017 and 2025. Farmers opted for a much lower increase of 2,500 acres.
The cropland will instead be planted in cover crops, which the state plans to pay $25.5 million annually to farmers to plant. Cover crops are an effective tool for controlling nutrients and sediment during the winter months, but a single planting and long-term management of a pasture would be more cost-effective for taxpayers, Schnabel said. The upfront cost of rearing livestock from “birth to fork” is more expensive than growing commodities, Ferguson said.
Pluses and minuses
The other largest reductions will come from wastewater treatment plants, which are projected to reduce 4.7 million pounds of nitrogen (41 percent decline from 2017 levels) and 0.39 million pounds of phosphorus (24 percent decline from 2017 levels) each year until 2025. However, the sector is also projected to add 2 million pounds of sediment to the water annually.
Urban stormwater and local septic systems will contribute much less initially to Maryland’s goals to reduce nutrient pollution in the bay. These sectors will have to catch up over time to bring long-term protection to the bay, Rowe said.
“We have to recognize that different sectors have different paces. Some can get there a little bit quicker, more cost-effectively. Some are more expensive,” Rowe said. “... But at the end of the day, all the sectors have a part to play and need to do the part — do their share — to get us to our big restoration targets.”
A complicating factor for urban stormwater and septic systems is that they are intricately linked to growth and land development. As the population and number of households grow, more impervious surfaces and septic systems will be built in Maryland. The growth will not be insignificant, either, with an estimated 15,000 households being added to Maryland annually through 2045, according to the plan.
Some of the land converted to housing will be from lower-intensity uses such as forests — with 3,000 acres lost annually already — or farmland, which declined 5,103 acres statewide in 2018, according to state databases.
Counties will be required to help reduce 0.2 million pounds of nitrogen (decline of 2 percent from 2017 levels), 0.09 million pounds of phosphorus (13 percent decline from 2017 levels) and 175 million pounds of sediment (43 percent decline from 2017 levels) annually through the MS4 until 2025 to meet the state’s goals.
At this time, the state is expecting to fully meet its 2025 goals. Frederick County has already created several programs to tackle its share of stormwater reductions, including offering a septic pump-out rebate to homeowners, launching a Creek ReLeaf program to replant stream-side riparian areas in permanent tree buffers and investing county funds in stream and stormwater pond restoration, Dorsey said.
Each kind of restoration project comes with a different number of “credits,” which could also change this summer with, or ahead, of the release of the next-generation MS4 permits. This could shift local properties to new projects, but the Maryland Department of Environment is not expecting dramatic changes, Busch said.
“We’re looking to make sure that our expectations for the MS4 permittees that we lay out in the phase three [Watershed Implementation Plan] are as close as possible to what’s actually going to go into the permits, but we recognize we’re not going to get it perfectly,” Busch said.