An August 8 Baltimore Sun commentary argues in support of adopting Governor Martin O’Malley’s proposal to ban the development of major subdivisions, defined as five or more housing units, on septic systems. Tom Horton, a long-time Chesapeake Bay advocate and reporter, argues that the use of septic systems in land planning is akin to using decades-old technology to build a new car.
Imagine if one of our major automakers proposed a model line of gas-wasting, air-fouling vehicles that used 60-year-old technology. Unthinkable, of course. Yet it’s little different than what homebuilders and developers propose when they plan most new rural subdivisions.
Their outdated model lineup combines sprawl development — a hugely wasteful use of land — with septic tanks, the highest-polluting form of waste treatment, largely unimproved for more than half a century. …
Mr. Horton notes that the septics proposal is not just about nitrogen reduction but also about changing land use patterns.
We’re unused to thinking of development as a technology, but it is. Sprawl, the building on large lots outside areas planned for more compact growth, is bound to septic tanks. …
The governor recognized that nearly a third of the quarter-million or so new households projected for Maryland by 2020 is likely to be on septic tanks. His proposal — no development of five or more homes that isn’t hooked to a sewage treatment plant — would push this growth toward planned areas. It would do more to rein in sprawl than decades of talking about “Smart Growth.”
While supporting the Governor’s proposal, Mr. Horton acknowledges that if development were solely focused on sewer systems, increased phosphorous pollution would occur unless additional measures were taken.
One irony that should not derail the Maryland proposal, but must be dealt with, is that septic tanks do not let the polluting phosphorus in human waste enter the bay, because it binds to soil in the ground. To the extent that development switches to sewer from septic, sewage treatment plants will have to remove more phosphorus, or reducing one bay pollutant could increase another.