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Watershed Moment for Prince George's County?
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by Tom Dernoga | 2012

The Prince George’s Sierra Club group has taken great interest in environmental issues relating to waterways in the county. Virtually all of the county’s major waterways (Anacostia, Patuxent, and Piscataway) are impaired, and have been so for many years.

The Prince George’s Sierra Club group has taken great interest in environmental issues relating to waterways in the county. Virtually all of the county’s major waterways (Anacostia, Patuxent, and Piscataway) are impaired, and have been so for many years.

     The major culprit in heavily urbanized Prince George’s County is stormwater because it washes pollutants from roads and parking lots, fertilizers from lawns, and sediment (which destroys streambeds) into rivers and streams. The Prince George’s Group and many of the county watershed protection groups fought hard in 2010 and 2011 to get the Prince George’s County government to adopt strong stormwater management standards for re-development. This would have meant that developers would have had to be responsible for installing practices on redevelopment sites that capture and filter stormwater. However, the Baker Administration sided with the development community to keep the standards near the state minimum.


Options to Regulate Water Pollution

There are many ways of regulating water pollution. Holding developers accountable for the pollution generated on their properties is one, as provided for under the stormwater management act of 2007. The Clean Water Act provides other avenues for reducing water pollution.

For example, under the Clean Water Act, major jurisdictions (such as Prince George’s County) are required to get a permit if they are discharging water pollution directly into rivers and streams. These permits cover any type of industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste discharged into water.

     Pollutants can enter U.S. waters from a variety of pathways including agricultural, domestic, and industrial sources. Typical sources for water pollution include publicly owned treatment works (POTWs), discharges from industrial facilities, and discharges associated with urban runoff.

     A major component of the Clean Water Act is the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) permit, which was designed to compel counties to address pollution from stormwater. Prince George’s County received its most recent five-year MS4 permit in 2004 from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) under the oversight of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This permit expired in 2009, but MDE extended it until a new MS4 permit is issued.

     Under the county’s MS4 permit, the administration has numerous obligations for maintaining and improving water quality, including: stormwater management, erosion and sediment control, detecting and eliminating illicit discharges into the county’s separate storm sewer system, reducing pollutants associated with road maintenance activities, engaging in public education, watershed assessment and planning, watershed restoration, and assessing the effectiveness of pollution-control efforts.

     The MS4 permit also requires the county to meet any “pollution diets” developed under a watershed implementation plan, which is basically a pollution-reduction goal. The Clean Water Act requires states to develop lists of impaired waters (those too degraded to meet the water-quality standards) and then calculate the maximum amount of a pollutant that each impaired water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards (i.e., develop a pollution diet).


County-Specific Actions—and Lack Thereof

In Prince George’s County, pollution diets have been developed for various segments of the Anacostia, Patuxent and Piscataway, and for various pollutants (including nitrogen, phosphorus, total suspended solids, and trash). Without question, local waterways continue to be in great danger, and the county has not lived up to its obligations. Now, in addition to the pollution diets for certain county waterways, the EPA has developed a Chesapeake Bay pollution diet and has been working with MDE to come up with a way to implement it across the state. The process has involved getting each county to create a watershed implementation plan (WIP) so that, in total, the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed will achieve its pollution diet.

     The Prince George’s Group and county watershed-protection groups have been following the county’s efforts to create a WIP strategy and to obtain a renewed MS4 permit. Ultimately, a progressive WIP that contains measurable results, a clear path to achieving them, identified funding, and meaningful milestones would mean tremendous advancement for county waterways. Similarly, an MS4 permit that requires measurable results and a clear implementation and monitoring plan, in addition to holding the county accountable, would herald potential water-quality improvement for county waterways. Thus, the permit process and the WIP process hold out much promise.


The Draft WIP

To the county’s credit, reviewers from the environmental community believe that the draft WIP plan establishes a fairly clear path toward reducing water pollution and has some meaningful milestones to demonstrate its achievements.

     However, the county’s draft WIP fails to contain clear estimates of pollution reductions and recommended funding sources to achieve nutrient-load reductions within the milestones. An unfortunate amount of the county’s WIP is spent bemoaning a lack of funding and time. The county has dragged its feet for many years on getting serious about water quality, and it has sided with the development community to prevent implementation of the strongest possible stormwater management measures. Therefore, much of its problems are self-imposed as a result of short-sighted evasion of responsibility. Now, it has little choice but to act under the MS4 permit and to leave it up to county taxpayers to fund the restoration of waterways degraded by poor development standards.



In the county government’s defense (although not the taxpayers), failure to address long-term consequences and costs has been standard across the state. Prince George’s County is not alone in this regard, and almost all counties have complained about the cost of solving the problems they have collectively created. The state government worked to address this problem in the just completed General Assembly session, approving a stormwater utility fee that counties can impose on property owners. Thus, through this new “taxing” authority, counties will have access to funds to address their historical shortcomings.

     The Prince George’s Group intends to continue working with local and regional watershed groups to ensure that the state requires the county to adopt a comprehensive and effective WIP to address the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet, and, even more importantly, that the state imposes effective conditions in the new MS4 permit. The WIP and the MS4 permit are two separate, but interrelated programs. One major distinction is that the MS4 permit has legal obligations under the Clean Water Act and enforcement mechanisms that environmental groups can press EPA and MDE to act upon, if the county fails to live up to its obligations.

      We are hopeful that the responsible county officials will begin a new course of utilizing available funding to identify existing problems, enforce existing laws, and plan and implement effective and efficient restoration methods. If so, Prince George’s County waterways could be transformed in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Quite simply, this is a watershed moment. n


Tom Dernoga is a member of the executive committee of the Prince George’s County Group.

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