Beach bummer

August 13, 2007

One consolation for the hot, miserable drought Maryland has endured this summer is that local waterways have been spared some of the pollution that would otherwise be washing off farms, shopping centers and city streets.

Last year's heavy rain was blamed in part for earning Maryland the dubious distinction of having two beaches - Hacks Point in Cecil County and Bay Shore Campground in Kent County - among the six unhealthiest in the nation as identified by the National Resources Defense Council using federal testing data.

The drought won't help enough, though, to cure an epidemic of pollution that cost Marylanders a total of 241 swimming days last year at the state's most popular beaches. What's needed are rigorous efforts to clean up or at least slow the rainwater runoff. Sewage treatment plants must be upgraded. Farmers must use buffer zones, cover crops and other techniques to retain the fertilizer. And new development must be designed with a minimum of nonporous surfaces, so as much rainwater as possible can be absorbed into the soil.

In recent years, there has been progress on each of these fronts. The 2003 state flush tax is paying to make sewage treatment plants more efficient. A farm bill making its way through Congress includes $400 million to help farmers in the bay watershed apply fertilizer management techniques. And state officials have just begun the process of writing regulations that will put into effect a sweeping new measure mandating that developers use techniques to minimize runoff.

But don't grab the beach bag yet. These steps will take years, and the outcome of the latter two is still uncertain. The farm bill faces much controversy - unrelated to the bay money - before it becomes law. And it's not yet clear how tight the new state runoff regulations will be.

Frustrated swimmers can play an important role, though, in the crafting of those regulations. A first draft is expected sometime in September and will be made available for public comment. If the proposed regulations are as bold as they should be, some resistance may be offered by developers and local officials who will have to enforce them. If the proposed regulations are too weak, they won't accomplish anything.

So all those who are heartbroken at the thought of a beautiful beach on a hot day where they dare not put more than a toe in the water must make sure this chance to help reverse the damage is not missed.

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