Anne Arundel County has tested septic systems that remove 60 percent of the nitrogen before it gets into ground water, and is requiring them in some cases. These installations nearly double the cost of a traditional system, but require little more maintenance.
Some of the resistance to alternative waste systems has come from environmentalists and natural resources agencies, who see them as a double-edge sword.
Traditional septic systems, for all their flaws, have kept development out of many areas like mountainsides and wetlands, where the drainage won't satisfy health standards. But using health regulations as a substitute for good land-use planning and growth management is a poor strategy in the long run. One of the best ways to begin reducing the septic tank impact on the bay is for Maryland to apply vigorously the principles in its weak, but well-meaning growth management law.
That law, embraced in concept by every county government, would direct growth away from areas that need septic tanks, and toward areas served by sewage treatment plants, where nitrogen is more reliably and economically removed.
Enough capacity already exists in sewage treatment plants in most parts of the bay watershed to accommodate all new population growth for several decades.
The solutions to septic tanks will take a mix of alternative technologies and growth management. And those of us who occupy the open space between town and country, neither sewered nor manured, must share part of the burden.