Kent Commissioner Ron Fithian and Clean Chesapeake Coalition Attorney Chip MacLeod appeared Wednesday with local rural leaders and farmers before the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis to support repeal of last year’s Sustainable Growth & Agricultural Preservation Act, also known as the “Septic Bill.”
Local officials lamented to committee chair, Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, that the “unaffordable” mandates placed on local governments to reduce septic pollution will do too little to help the state meet nutrient reduction goals that comply with Clean Water Act by 2025—unless a major fix is put in place to stop the increasing flow of sediment and nutrients coming through the Conowingo Dam from the Susquehanna River.
Opponents of the Septic Bill insist that the state’s federally mandated Watershed Implementation Plan aims too much local money and resources at septic systems, which contribute far less nutrients into the Bay than the Conowingo Dam in Cecil County, according to Clean Chesapeake Coalition.
“We think the attention needs to be directed to…the Conowingo Dam,” said Fithian, who also chairs the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, which is challenging the science of state’s Bay cleanup plan. “For the last 40 years, with tears in our eyes, we have watched the Bay deteriorate year after year…today there is not one commercial oysterman working in the upper third of the Bay.”
“The oyster business has been decimated, the clam business has been decimated, and the aquatic grasses in that area are non-existent,” Fithian said, “I can sit here and tell you that [the deterioration] has nothing to do with septic systems. It has to do with the millions upon millions of cubic yards of sediment coming through that Conowingo Dam, and that’s where we need to be placing our emphasis.”
Cecil County Councilwoman Diana Broomell said any gains made by local cleanup plans mandated in Cecil County, at a cost of $600 million, could be for not if the sediment behind the Conowingo isn’t removed.
“We could invest the $600 million in our WIP plan to put all the measures in, and one storm event would undo all that good,” Broomell said. “I ask that the [Septic Bill] be put back out for study for more effective ways to reach the goal of cleaning the Bay and preserving aquaculture.”
MacLeod said the high costs to implement local WIP plans will yield only minor nutrient reductions and would not be a cost effective means to clean up the Bay.
“The important focus for anybody who really wants to make some meaningful improvements to the Bay should be what is happening at the Conowingo Reservoir right now,” MacLeod said.
He said that septic bill would only account for a reduction of 1.1 million pounds nitrogen into the Bay by the year 2035, an annual reduction of only 50,000 pounds of nitrogen per year. By contrast, 339 million pounds of nitrogen flows into the bay every year, with 131 million pounds coming through the Conowingo Dam.
“The Conowingo Dam and Reservoir, the most significant and best storm water management practice in the whole Bay watershed is rapidly nearing its capacity to trap nutrients and sediments,” MacLeod said. “Behind the dam sits 370,000 tons of nitrogen.”
“If not dredged, what we do and spend below the dam for Bay restoration is in vein,” MacLeod said. “When the Conowingo Reservoir reaches equilibrium, and we are basically almost there, the Bay will receive a 250 percent increase in sediments, a 70 percent increase in Phosphorus and a two percent increase in nitrogen” in addition to the 131 million pounds that already flow through the dam annually.
When asked by House Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell the price tag to cleanup the Conowingo, MacLeod replied that pollution goals set by EPA could be reached or exceeded if Maryland and Pennsylvania each paid $1 billion to dredge the dam.
“Today, no government or business is responsible for taking care of the sediments, and yet, here we are implementing…$3.7 billion in the state WIP related to septic.”
“We agree we that we need to do something about the Susquehanna and we need to do something about the Conowingo,” McIntosh said after MacLeod’s testimony. She said she wanted to meet with Fithian and MacLeod at another time to discuss issues “where we don’t agree.”
CBF Executive Director Alison Prost attended the hearing opposing repeal of the Septic Bill, but she did not address any of the previous testimony on the Conowingo Dam.
Instead, Prost and other representatives of CBF fielded questions on new land use restrictions for farmers under the Septic Bill.
Farmers testified that the Septic Bill infringes on property rights, most significantly the right to develop and subdivide, which they say lowers the equity in their land to borrow on in hard times, plan for retirement, or to upgrade and fund their operations.