The Chesapeake Bay Foundation encouraged the St. Mary’s County commissioners Tuesday to continue efforts to remedy the health of the estuary.
But the science behind the state and federal efforts to revive the health of the Chesapeake was again questioned by some of the commissioners.
At the same time, Dorchester County and the law firm of Funk and Bolton are trying to form a Maryland Rural Counties Coalition to fight the federal Watershed Implementation Plan, which calls for significant decreases in the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment going into the Chesapeake.
St. Mary’s County has been contacted but has not yet joined. The group asks for an initial $25,000 contribution toward the coalition from each county.
A Nov. 16 letter from Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to the St. Mary’s commissioners said, “Perhaps what is most important to citizens of St. Mary’s County, and neglected in the efforts by the [coalition], is the extremely poor quality of some local waters. For example, the Lower Patuxent and Lower Potomac rivers and Breton Bay are ‘impaired’ (polluted) for nutrients and/or sediment, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.”
The letter continued, “Ultimately, local actions will play the key role in adequately cleaning local St. Mary’s County waters and making them safe for swimming and recreation. Your actions are working. Let’s finish the job, not abandon it half-completed.”
The first pact to clean up the Chesapeake was signed in 1983.
Earlier this year, St. Mary’s County submitted its portion of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Watershed Implementation Plan, but told the Maryland Department of the Environment it does not endorse the plan because of the costs involved.
It could cost at least $166 million to hook some older neighborhoods served by septic systems to new sewer lines.
The majority of household in St. Mary’s, 70 percent, are on septic systems. The Maryland Department of the Environment says each septic system produces 9.5 pounds of nitrogen a year.
Under the current billing structure of the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission, it costs $3,712 for a new home connection to a sewer line, if there is a sewer line nearby. There hasn’t been any county-level discussion on how that would be paid for if plans were implemented.
Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, told the commissioners Tuesday, “You all have incredible natural resources down here,” but Breton Bay, the Wicomico River and St. Mary’s River are impaired.
“The science behind cleaning up the bay … is unparalleled,” she said. “We really know what we need to do. We need to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.”
Sediment clogs aquatic vegetation, which provides habitat for juvenile fish and crabs. Nitrogen fuels algae blooms in the water. As bacteria break them down, the dissolved oxygen in the water is depleted, killing other aquatic life.
But local jurisdictions want to know how to pay for the Watershed Implementation Plan.
By 2017, Maryland’s 67 major sewage treatment plants that discharge into the bay watershed will have enhanced nitrogen removal. Properties on septic and sewer systems now pay $60 a year to the state for a fund for those sewer plant and septic system upgrades.
When the sewage treatment plant money is spent, the bay restoration fee could be focused more on septic systems, McGee said.
She said it is possible that 20 percent of the nitrogen load from St. Mary’s County comes from septic systems, rather than from sewage treatment plants.
Commissioner Dan Morris (R) asked where that data came from.
“That is my understanding,” McGee said.
“Since there was no testing in St. Mary’s, how do you come up with that?” Morris said.
There are several models in place that determine percentages, but the actual course of nitrogen back to a septic tank can’t be traced per se, she said.
“I would be interested in the hard science that backs up your assumptions,” Morris said. “We’re talking a lot of money. Annapolis and Baltimore come down and say you’re going to invest in this and believe what we tell you is the gospel. I’m not a believer.”
Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) said it was sewage treatment plants up the Patuxent River that polluted it. “It certainly wasn’t the septic tanks that were the problem or the farmers,” he said.
What is imperative to the bay’s health is the recovery of the oyster population, he said. “Without that living filter, the real problem, the algae, is thriving,” he said.
“Yep,” McGee said.
“The living filters aren’t working. That’s the challenge,” Jarboe said.
“We need to do it all,” McGee said.
Commission President Jack Russell (D) said oysters are on the rebound in the Potomac and St. Mary’s River, but the water still isn’t clear.
And Morris noted that mute swans, an invasive species, tear up the aquatic grasses.