Maryland Nutrient Trading Plan Announced, But Details Await

This week stakeholders offered a variety of responses to the Hogan Administration’s announcement that it intends to establish a nutrient trading program for pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Most players have suggested that the forthcoming details of such a plan will guide both its effectiveness and burdens.

The Baltimore Sun carried the announcement of the proposed “trading” system:

Proponents say trading could significantly reduce the projected $15 billion cost to Maryland of curtailing nutrient pollution fouling the bay. Communities facing expensive mandates to upgrade sewage plants or reduce stormwater pollution, for instance, might be able to meet their requirements by paying farmers far less to reduce runoff of fertilizer from their fields.

The Sun later offered its own tentative endorsement of the approach, but with caveats:

Unfortunately, water pollution can be a bit more problematic than greenhouse gases or sulfur dioxide emitted by power plants, pollutants that are both closely monitored and end up widely dispersed. It’s relatively easy to tell how much carbon dioxide is coming out of Brandon Shores Generating Station on any given day. Water pollution is far trickier. Regulators can track the output of sewage treatment plants or industrial sites with their own discharge permits, but it’s much more difficult to tell exactly what’s coming from such “non-point” sources such as rural farm fields or city stormwater.

That’s not to suggest that a water quality trading program to improve the Chesapeake Bay couldn’t work, but the devil is in the proverbial details. In this, we share the wariness of much of the environmental advocacy community. A water quality trading program puts an enormous obligation on regulatory agencies to adequately police the system, and looking at programs across the country, the results have been mixed at best.

The recently revived effort picks up from the extensive work done (largely in 2013) on “Accounting for Growth,” though a wide stakeholder group (including county representatives) was unable to reach full consensus on its eventual tenets. The Administration has signaled that its revived effort will be labeled as “Aligning for Growth.”

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties