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How Growing Smarter Can Achieve Clean Water Goal
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by Claudia Friedetzky | 2012

The largest estuary in North America, the Chesapeake Bay, was once the most productive in the world. H.L. Menken called it an “immense protein factory.” But pollution generated by nearly 17 million people now living in the 64,000-square-mile watershed has left the Bay an ecosystem dangerously out of balance.

The Example of Charles County


By Claudia Friedetzky—There are some basic truths about what type of land use is beneficial for water quality and what type of land use will lead to a decline of our rivers and streams. Forests are the best land use for water quality. The roots of trees absorb large amounts of rain water, and the forest floor filters the remaining water until it is discharged into underground streams and seeps that empty into larger streams, and, eventually, into an estuary like the Chesapeake Bay or into the ocean. Forests are equipped to handle a wide range of storm events, from gentle to severe. Forests slow down and cool the runoff from storms so it does not disturb sensitive aquatic ecosystems.

      Roads, roofs and parking lots are the worst land use for water quality. These impervious surfaces don’t absorb rain water at all. Rain water that hits impervious surfaces picks up pollutants and toxins, and then flows unfiltered—at high speeds, high temperatures, and in large volumes—into storm drains. From there the water flows directly into streams, where the accumulated pollutants and toxins degrade water quality and disrupt aquatic ecosystems. When there is a big storm and a lot of sediment present, the sudden and massive flow of water into streams gouges out the streambeds, leading to dangerous levels of erosion.


The Effects of Stormwater Runoff

Mattawoman Creek in Charles County is a perfect example of the deleterious effects of stormwater runoff. Considered Maryland’s most productive fish nursery to the Chesapeake Bay, Mattawoman Creek is now showing signs of serious decline linked to urbanization. It is a testament to recent research demonstrating that a stream degrades seriously when impervious surfaces cover 10 percent of its watershed. Yet Mattawoman is slated for impervious cover (23 percent) comparable to that of the Anacostia River watershed, sadly recognized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation as the Washington, DC area’s greatest source of toxic pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. Amplifying the problem, Mattawoman is also slated for loss of half its rapidly diminishing forest cover.


The Cost of Sprawl

Partly because of sprawl development, our rivers, streams, and estuaries have been deteriorating so much that cleanup and restoration costs are becoming stunningly expensive. Charles County’s share of the costs for Chesapeake Bay restoration, a historic and comprehensive process to restore clean water in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, will amount to about one billion dollars. Between now and 2025, when we expect to reach our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals, we will be paying dearly for past mistakes in land use. But this will not—and this is important to understand—address all the pollution that we will have to account for under the “pollution diet” mandated by Chesapeake Bay restoration. And these costs do not include pollution associated with future population growth in Maryland.

      Many of Maryland’s counties are expected to have substantial increases in population. Charles County has been the fastest growing county in the state. Its population increased by 22 percent since 2000, and it will continue to grow. Under the state’s Clean Water Plan (watershed implementation plan or WIP), pollution caused by future growth will have to be accounted for and offset. If we fail to account for pollution as a result of expected population growth, we would fail once again to meet our Chesapeake Bay restoration goals and any ground gained in the quest for clean water in Maryland would be lost.


Smart Growth

One of the most effective ways to limit pollution from future growth is to pursue smart growth approaches to planning and development. Smart growth limits the spread of impervious surface and new septic systems, which are associated with much higher pollution loads than development on sewer systems, presuming that our wastewater treatment plants function properly (which is not always the case).

     In Maryland, counties have power over land use. Through the comprehensive plan process, counties largely determine the location and extent of housing developments, shopping areas, roads, and schools, and where farmland and natural resources will be protected.

     The comprehensive plan is the vehicle through which the counties can limit future sprawl development to protect our waterways. In its Clean Water Plan, Maryland recommends that counties use their planning processes, including the comprehensive plan process, to limit increases in pollution loads. The state recommends that counties pursue smart growth approaches to limit pollution from stormwater and septic systems.

While other counties decided to integrate their comprehensive plan revisions and the development of their clean water plans, Charles County is shunning that route, contrary to recommendations from the state of Maryland.

     As a result, an important educational opportunity was lost in Charles County. During the public input period of the comprehensive plan, consultants charged with managing the process presented the land-use options to the public as if nothing were at stake, as if we weren’t rapidly losing our most precious rivers and streams to pollution caused by sprawl development. No one presented to the public the costs of sprawl in loss of water quality and associated cleanup costs, or the many benefits of smart growth. This lost opportunity has contributed to the traction gained by a vocal growth-oriented faction that is bent on continuing failed land- use policies at the expense of quality of life for county residents.

     At the final meeting of the public input process, attendees at the comprehensive planning meetings were told that compromise between the differing visions among the public was necessary. We were told that we would get some protection of natural resources and some growth. A more appropriate approach would have been to point out to the public that all but one of the rivers in Charles County are degraded, and, unless we wanted to become the next Prince George’s County, with all of its rivers highly polluted, and sprawl growth covering most of the county, we needed to pursue a substantially different direction in land-use planning.

     In the face of all this, the intrepid Charles County environmentalists, with assistance from the Sierra Club Maryland Chapter, very successfully mobilized during the public input phase of the comprehensive plan revision. The result was a commendable comprehensive-plan scenario that could, with changes here and there, shift Charles County’s land-use plan to a smart growth direction and substantially increase protection for natural resources.

In the meantime, however, a segment of the public has become prey to the pro-sprawl growth forces in the county. This segment is now supporting the Planning Commission’s dismantling of the results of the public input process and the reinstatement of business-as-usual land use with its negative effects on people, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

     Saving Charles County’s rural character and its streams, and improving the quality of life of its residents, will require a huge and well-conceived grassroots mobilization. If you want to get involved or get more information, please contact Claudia Friedetzky, Conservation Representative, Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club at, 301-277-7111, or Bonnie Bick, Conservation Chair of the Southern Maryland Group, 240-493-4919.  


Claudia Friedetzky is the Conservation Representative for water issues for the Maryland Chapter.

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