An era of limits

December 24, 2006

Twenty years after officials in Maryland and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay region launched a campaign to sharply limit pollution that is choking life out of the giant estuary, those curbs are starting to have an impact.

Voluntary goals to reduce chemical nutrients washing into the bay from a variety of sources are now federal mandates to reach those limits and maintain them. As a result, fast-growing Cecil County fears a resulting cap on its sewage treatment capacity will mean the county can't accommodate as much new development as it expects in designated growth areas and can't stop sprawl from heading into the rural countryside.

But to view Cecil's dilemma, recently reported by The Sun's Timothy B. Wheeler, as a choice between Smart Growth and environmental protection misses the larger point. The county's arrival in this new era of limits makes an eloquent argument for imposing the sort of regional, comprehensive approach to land use essential to improving water quality.

With a regional framework that overlays city, county and even state boundaries to manage the total flow of nutrients, communities can trade pollution allotments to develop in the smartest, most environmentally sensitive way while preserving open space and protecting underground aquifers.

What's more, taking a broader view should hasten a long-overdue change in state policy, which currently requires no consideration of bay nutrients in the approval of septic tank discharge permits - making rural areas a too easy target for developers.

Much of the technical research necessary to manage water pollution controls on a regional basis has been done, state officials say. What's needed is the political will to implement it.

We don't underestimate the difficulty of bringing about such a major shift in approach. Local governments have always guarded land-use decisions jealously. Cecil and other counties don't even cooperate with municipalities within their borders.

Yet with the arrival in Annapolis next month of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley and newly elected state lawmakers committed to environmental protection, the moment is ripe. Plus, the clock is ticking on reducing bay pollution in accord with federal Clean Water Act requirements.

Bay scientists talk about the E Scenario, an unofficial formula for reaching those goals: nutrient flows will have to be reduced by everyone, from everything, everywhere.

But with a broad approach and some political moxie, it can be done.

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