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Wiser About Our Waters
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2011

To clean up the Chesapeake Bay requires turning a tide that is permanently scouring our landscape. The Bay watershed loses to development 100 acres of forest, the best land-use for protecting water quality, every day. The rate at which urbanization converts land to surfaces impervious to rainwater, the worst land-use for water quality, exceeds the rate of population growth by a factor of five.

Growing Wiser About Our Waters

To clean up the Chesapeake Bay requires turning a tide that is permanently scouring our landscape.

The Bay watershed loses to development 100 acres of forest, the best land-use for protecting water quality, every day.

The rate at which urbanization converts land to surfaces impervious to rainwater, the worst land-use for water quality, exceeds the rate of population growth by a factor of five.

Lawns are now the largest single “crop” consuming the Bay watershed, comparable to all other crops combined, and are catching up with agriculture’s declining contribution to excess nutrient pollution.

Urbanization accounts for nearly a third of phosphorus and sediment pollution to the Bay, and is on par with wastewater contributions of nitrogen. And of the major pollution sectors (air deposition, wastewater, agriculture, and urban), it is the only one that is growing.

 

The Effect of Impervious Cover

Using the lens of a local watershed to sharpen focus, consider Maryland’s most productive fish nursery to the Chesapeake Bay, Mattawoman Creek, now showing signs of a serious decline linked to urbanization. It is testament to recent research demonstrating that a stream degrades seriously when impervious surfaces cover 8% of its watershed. Yet Mattawoman is slated for impervious cover (~23%) comparable to that of the Anacostia River watershed, sadly recognized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as the Washington, D.C. area’s greatest source of toxic pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Amplifying the problem, Mattawoman is also slated for loss of half its present rapidly diminishing forest cover.   

As the maps show, southern Maryland, the state’s fastest growing region, will be overwhelmed if business as usual continues.

 

Maryland Department of Planning projections for 2030 (from a 2002 baseline) for urbanization (dark  areas) in southern Maryland with and without Smart Growth.      

 

 

That business is sprawl development. Although long recognized as an unsustainable economic model and a blight—Governor O’Malley confessed to nausea when flying over it—sprawl is promoted by powerful industries with the finances to subvert political will and to effectively market their perspective. Listen to any broadcast reporting housing starts, and note the reporter’s supposition that housing starts, and hence sprawl development, is necessary to our economic well being.

 

Protecting Forests and Farms with Smart Growth

Is there an alternative?  Given scant progress in slowing the population growth now saturating our environmental support system, we must surely implement “Smarter Growth” to maintain our natural heritage, quality of life, and the ecosystem services upon which our economy ultimately relies. True Smart Growth uses zoning and other ordinances to direct growth to areas with existing infrastructure where mass transit is viable, and to ensure these areas are walkable and attractive with sufficient open space.  Equally important, smart growth zoning protects the forests and farms of rural areas. Other tools help, such as transfer development rights (TDRs), by which a developer purchases the development rights from rural landowners in return for increased densities in a carefully chosen urban core.  For a TDR program to succeed, zoning in the urban core should be low enough to provide an incentive to purchase TDRs, and rural zoning should start at one housing unit per twenty acres.

Maryland became the birthplace of Smart Growth in 1997, in part through Governor Parris Glendening’s awareness of the near-debacle of the Chapman’s Landing development proposal in Charles County, which would have planted a new city of 4,600 homes, 12,000 people, a golf course and 2.25 million square feet of commercial space stretching from the Potomac River to the Mattawoman. The state eventually purchased the site in 1998 under the banner of Chapman Forest (now named Chapman State Park).  It is not coincidental that two thirds of the site drains to sensitive Mattawoman Creek.

However, without zoning authority, and prone to weak oversight, the state has limited means to implement Smart Growth. It relies on incentives in the form of financial assistance for infrastructure in places designated as Priority Funding Areas (PFAs).  But a recent study by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education found PFAs, which were created with no public participation, to be ineffective. In fact, in Charles County, more growth has occurred outside PFAs than within. In addition, many PFAs, such as the town of Bryans Road, which drains to Mattawoman’s vulnerable spawning grounds, are inappropriately located,

 

Plan Maryland and County
Comprehensive Plans

Currently, Maryland is refining Smart Growth precepts through a program called Plan Maryland that involves public participation through regional workshops and a web-based survey (www.plan.maryland.gov).  It remains to be seen if Annapolis can effectively protect watersheds, because land-use decisions and zoning are the purview of local governments.  Unfortunately, these governments too often are influenced by the development industry, that makes a point of occupying the ground floor when counties devise the Comprehensive Plans that outline their future distribution of growth. Furthermore, the state seldom reins in local governments, as recently demonstrated by Maryland’s approval of Charles County’s Water Resources Element (a component of the Comprehensive Plan) though it failed to meet federal “pollution diets” for Mattawoman Creek and the Port Tobacco River.

Perhaps the Environmental Protection Agency’s new attention to these diets for excess nutrients and sediments will help if effective local “Watershed Implementation Plans” are successful.  The new pollution diets and other strategies, like recent state legislation beefing up stormwater treatment and curtailing the nutrient content of lawn fertilizers, acknowledge that past policies have fallen short, and could help curtail development in sensitive areas.  But these measures will fail, yet again, without a fundamental change in land-use policies that direct the distribution of growth.  Otherwise these measures will not only have to reduce present pollution loads, but also make up for new development replacing forest, which nurtures our waters by controlling nutrients and stormwater loads, slowing and cooling runoff, and fostering stormwater infiltration for later release to streams during dry spells.

Throughout the state, a key to implementing smarter growth policies is the county Comprehensive  Plan. Because land-use is a local decision, it is incumbent on all who care about our quality of life to get involved in the process that determines the outcome of these crucial “comp plans,” which by state law must be revised every six years. Otherwise, the wave of urbanization now stripping the watershed of the cherished Bay will continue, one watershed at a time.            n

                                                    

This article was provided by the Mattawoman Watershed Society.

 

 

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