The St. Mary’s County Commissioners Tuesday got a severe case of sticker shock in listening to an initial report from a committee working on plans for the county’s part in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

According the Department of Land Use and Growth Management (LUGM) Environmental Planner Sue Veith, the Bay has been on a “pollution diet” since last December when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) that has to be achieved by 2025 and sets up milestones to meet those levels. The process came about out of a court settlement in a suit filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation against EPA over failure of cleanup programs,
To achieve the Bay’s TMDL by 2025, nitrogen loading has to be reduced by 25 percent, phosphorus by 24 percent and sediment by 20 percent. The state has established a more ambitious deadline of 2020, a point which may become a bone of contention by the counties.
Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP’s) became the framework to implement the court settlement. The local committee was established on an ad hoc basis in April and has been meeting ever since to come up with the county’s version of the plan which will be incorporated into a state plan. The committee is made up of representatives of most government agencies located in the county. The initial parts of the local plan will go to the state this week, but the commissioners will add the proviso that it’s all preliminary and nothing has been decided.
Septic systems are the county’s big problem in meeting its portion of the goal. Veith says the county is heavily dependent on septics. According to LUGM data, 26,071 households are served by septic systems and only 10,993 by public sewer. Veith says that the county needs to reduce nitrogen loads from septic systems by 70,000 lbs. per year.
The St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (MetCom) estimates it would cost more than $176 million to retrofit septic systems to achieve that nitrogen reduction. Veith, however, cautions the cost estimates are preliminary and could be lower due to more competition and economies of scale.
Whatever the number it is large and there is no funding source at this time, with options such as more state funding from the Bay Restoration Fund, putting part or all of the cost on the homeowner or the county picking up some or all of the cost.
“These dollar signs are scary” said Commissioner Daniel Morris (R: 2nd), who has questioned the science of the 1000 foot critical area buffer. Veith said distance is a filter for potential infiltration into the waters from septic systems. She said the numbers are based on science.
Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe (R: 3rd) said the Patuxent used to be clean when everyone was on septic systems, and blamed the problems on upriver sewage treatment plants. “So far, as hard as we have worked, we have gone in the opposite direction,” he said. Veith responded that cleanup efforts had been successful, but, “At some point growth has outstripped the progress.”