Going down the drain

Our view: Gov. O'Malley proposes an important, if controversial, boost to Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts with a limit on use of septic systems

February 06, 2011

For 150 years, the technology of the septic system has been little changed. It remains a large tank where household waste is deposited; sediments accumulate at the bottom while liquids are allowed to slowly drain into the soil.

When working properly, septic systems protect human health from pathogens and allow rural areas to support housing and other types of development. But tanks and drainage fields do little to prevent nitrogen from leaching into the groundwater.

The environmental consequences on local streams and rivers of that shortcoming can be significant — septic systems account for an estimated 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen poured into the Chesapeake Bay each year. And there are rivers in rural areas where septic tanks account for 30 percent to 40 percent of the local nitrogen load. Experts forecast that developers will add 145,000 new septic systems to the state over the next two decades.

Gov. Martin O'Malley's call last week to limit the creation of large subdivisions with traditional septic systems was easily the highlight of his State of the State address. It is a bold, if necessary, step in preserving Maryland's water quality.

But it will not be easily accomplished. Rural lawmakers, developers and contractors are already up in arms. Expect them to be joined by farmers and other property owners who could see the value of their land diminished.

Nothing stirs controversy quite like land use issues, and counties have resisted the intrusion of state governance over land planning before. But Maryland can ill afford to allow rural development to continue unchecked. Even the counties recognize this, as several on the Eastern Shore have already placed similar restrictions on large subdivisions.

Nevertheless, the consequences of what the governor has proposed could be profound. Farmers who might suffer a loss in land value may merit some type of compensation. Lawmakers will need to find ways for government to encourage more appropriate forms of development so homebuilders will have work and the next generation of Marylanders a place to live.

Make no mistake, a ban on large-scale septic-based development is not a vote for "no growth" but for smart growth. Instead of busting up farm fields, this measure would steer developers toward focusing on revitalizing older neighborhoods and building in areas served by public water and sewer. That may be as significant a result of this law as the reduction of nitrogen itself.

Meanwhile, legislators should also endorse a separate proposal to require enhanced septic tanks (which can reduce nitrogen discharge) for all new homes and businesses where public sewer is unavailable. The technology is already required of homes and businesses built along the waterfront.

Together, these measures could make a real difference in protecting the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. And without such changes, the concept of smart growth in this state will continue to be nothing more than a pipe dream as Maryland continues to lose farms and open spaces to unchecked development sprawl.

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