Counties Struggle With Stormwater Treatment Requirements

Bay Journal article (2019-04-01) provided an in-depth analysis of the struggles county governments face in addressing pollution caused by stormwater runoff. All counties must achieve some level of stormwater runoff reduction under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load and many counties, particularly urban jurisdictions, must achieve specific goals under their Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits. The MS4 permits require the retrofitting of existing impervious surface and stormwater treatment facilities with green infrastructure that allows stormwater to filter into the ground, as opposed to being directly channeled into a nearby waterway.

According to the article, stormwater runoff is the only source of water pollution that is currently growing. The article noted that despite spending millions of dollars (in some cases hundreds of millions), many counties have struggled to meet their MS4 goals. This is due to project costs, the complexity of retrofits, the short implementation timeframe within the 5-year MS4 permit, and the lack of access to private property. Instead, these counties have had to focus on practices like street sweeping or stream restoration, despite questions about their effectiveness. Other counties have had to rely on the State’s nutrient credit trading program.

This is against a backdrop of some organizations criticizing the level of credit the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has provided for some mitigation practices, including street sweeping or stream restoration. From the article:

State officials say they did those things to provide flexibility in meeting the ambitious stormwater reduction target they set because the effort was costly and difficult and each locality seemed to have different challenges meeting it.

“Each county is finding practices that work best in their landscape and environment,” said Lee Currey, director of the MDE Water and Science Administration.

But environmentalists and even some stream restoration professionals contend that the state has let localities off easy. Under pressure from local officials, they say, regulators permitted and expanded credit for measures of debatable value in reducing polluted runoff — or, in the case of trading, that simply put off dealing with it until sometime in the future.

“This agency is trying to turn every environmental restoration initiative into an accounting exercise, ripe for accounting gimmicks to make the status quo look like progress,” said Evan Isaacson, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. “Whether it’s a juiced stormwater accounting guidance document, nutrient trading market or rigging stream restoration assumptions, there is just far too much talk of ‘credit.’ ”

The MDE’s Currey rejected the criticism, insisting that the agency’s actions were based on research and expert advice.

The article also summarized the challenges of five large counties:

Baltimore City

The City focused on street sweeping, storm drain cleaning, and some stream restoration to meet its current permit goals. However, if MDE reduces credit for street sweeping, the City may have challenges during its next permit cycle.

Anne Arundel County

Anne Arundel focused on shoreline erosion control, stormwater detention pond retrofits, stream restoration, and pumping out septic tanks. However, the County was able to meet less than half of its acreage treatment requirements through all of these efforts. The County met the remainder of its requirements through nutrient credit trading with its wastewater treatment plants. The County hopes to address the remaining acreage with permanent projects during its next permit cycle.

Baltimore County

Baltimore County relied heavily on stream restoration projects to meet its 6,036 acre treatment requirement. However, there is an ongoing policy debate about whether MDE is providing too much credit for stream restoration projects, which may pose challenges during the next permit cycle.

Prince George’s County

Prince George’s undertook a lauded and innovative public-private partnership with Corvias Solutions to meet its stormwater requirements, but the County may fall short of its treatment requirements. The County attempted to cover any shortfall with credits from its overperforming wastewater treatment plants but has been unable to reach a credit-sharing agreement with plants’ regional authority, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Montgomery County

Despite being a pioneer in addressing stormwater pollution and investing more that $100 million, Montgomery failed to meet its MS4 goals last year. However, the County indicated it has now caught up with its previous target. County officials stated in the article that they had to rely on every credit and tool available to meet its goal.

MDE is currently working on the next set of MS4 permits for large jurisdictions and will issue them later this year. Those permits will run from 2019 through 2023. MACo, the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, and affected counties continue to discuss permit requirements and expectations with MDE.