In Maryland, cleaner water but murky politics

Reports says Md. beaches 7th best in nation

August 02, 2010

This week there was a refreshing break from the usual drumbeat of bad news about the quality of Maryland's waters. A survey released by the Natural Resources Defense Council said Maryland's coastal and bay beaches last year were among the cleanest in the nation.

The report carried a wave of good news — and a little backwash of bad. On the bright side, only 3 percent of Maryland water samples tested by local health authorities last summer for fecal bacteria exceeded safe levels. This means that Maryland ranked seventh-best among the nation's 30 costal states for the percentage of water samples exceeding safe levels. Delaware beaches did even better, finishing second to New Hampshire. Virginia waters finished fourth.

Other benign news was that the state's most popular beaches — those at Sandy Point on the Chesapeake Bay and at Assateague and Ocean City on the Atlantic Ocean — received high marks, garnering four out of a possible five stars in the survey.

On the down side, the number of beach closings and advisories in the state, triggered by wet-weather runoff and sewer spills, jumped to 133 days in 2009 from 61 days in 2008. Moreover, several Chesapeake Bay beaches (Bayside in Anne Arundel County, West View Shores and Red Point in Cecil County, Tolchester Estates and Tolchester Marina in Kent County) were cited as some of the dirtiest of the 56 Maryland beaches in the survey.

While it is reassuring to hear that most of our beaches are safe most of the time, it is also evident there is plenty of work yet to done. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to safely swim at all Maryland beaches, even after heavy rains?

At the same time, there was also a welcome and related change recently on the state's political front. The two most prominent candidates for governor, Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, continued to spar. But instead of arguing about jobs, taxes and slots, they were skirmishing over who had a better record on the environment.

Former governor Ehrlich patted himself on the back for his signing of the so-called flush tax in 2004, which funds sewage-treatment upgrades that reduce nitrogen levels in the bay. Governor O'Malley's campaign, in turn, praised the incumbent governor for defending the state's Program Open Space land conservation effort. Both sides, in keeping with the tenor of this campaign, accused the other side of distortions.

If you are going to argue — and these two candidates can be quite quarrelsome — at least the set-to over who will be the greener governor is one worth having.

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