At the 2014 MACo Summer Conference, a panel of state, county, and environmental stakeholders discussed the history and recent legislative changes to the Bay Restoration Fund (BRF) and speculated on future uses of BRF monies as current funding commitments are met over the next several years.
Maryland Department of the Environment Water Quality Financing Administration Director Jag Khuman provided an overview and history of the BRF, including the use of the fund to upgrade major wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to enhanced nitrogen removal standards and failing septic systems to best available nitrogen removal technology (BAT) and provide agricultural cover crop dollars. Khuman noted that the BRF has awarded $932 million in WWTP grants to date and only 5% of major WWTP water flow has not yet been upgraded. Once the bulk of the major WWTP upgrades are finished in FY 2018, State law allows the excess BRF money to be used to upgrade smaller WWTPs, increase septic system upgrade funding, and fund stormwater management projects. About $80 million has been awarded to counties and homeowners for septic system upgrades.
Khuman also discussed recent legislative changes made to the BRF during the 2014 Session. HB 11 now allows BRF funds to be used to connect communities with failing septic systems located outside of a priority funding area (PFA) to a WWTP, subject to showing a public health reason and getting a Smart Growth exception from the State’s Smart Growth Coordinating Committee.
Anne Arundel County Division of Environmental Health Director Kerry Topovski discussed how her county is working on BRF-eligible projects under HB 11. She noted that the County has saved money by connecting failing septics to WWTPs rather than upgrading the septics to BAT and would like to expand that effort. Topovski discussed the requirements the County uses to identify areas of public health concern inside and outside of PFAs. She also highlighted the time and funding challenges local health departments face in securing and distributing the funding , estimating it can take 4-10 years before a county and community can meet the requirements.
Topovski expressed concern about how the Smart Growth exception process under HB 11 would work and requested that the State develop guidelines to assist counties when they are considering applying for BRF monies under the provisions of HB 11.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland Land Use Planner Erik Fisher recognized that counties do a lot of work outside of the public’s awareness and thanked them for their efforts. He cited the documented successes of BRF-funded projects in reducing water pollution and improving water quality. He focused on four key areas regarding future improvements to the BRF:
(1) Efficiency – Try to leverage even more benefits from the BRF and look at refining the funding priority system to include delivery ratios, local water quality, and phosphorus. Consider how to improve maintenance and verification for nonpoint sources like stormwater and explore new and innovative practices and technologies.
(2) Equity – Water quality needs should be addressed across the state and people should see “results at home.”
(3) Growth Management – He stressed the need to be careful about dealing with water and sewer connections outside of PFAs. Fisher felt that HB 11 advanced the process by fostering open discussion about public health concerns, the potential for new growth, and ensuring public participation.
(4) Readiness – Fisher noted that it was important to plan ahead to take advantage of the flexibility and funds that will be available through the BRF in the next several years and also to protect the BRF from being used to balance the State’s budget. He felt that a key protection was being able to show how the BRF provides documented water quality solutions to defined local needs.