In the decades-long effort to clean up Chesapeake Bay, septic systems are the latest target of Maryland lawmakers. Provisions of the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 (SB 236) are just coming into force and will severely restrict the use of individual septic systems in the continuing effort to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the bay.
For pumpers and installers in Maryland, it’s a “new paradigm” that would be difficult to overturn, according to Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association president Dave Duree.
The Maryland Department of Planning projects the law will cut the number of new onsite wastewater systems by 50 percent by restricting their use in areas that are served by or planned for public sewers, and by restricting the location of large residential subdivisions to prevent urban sprawl. The law does not address commercial and industrial development.
Attack or admit defeat?
Duree sees it as the next chapter in the 30-year effort to clean up Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country, covering 4,480 square miles through Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
“The Chesapeake Bay has been severely degraded,” says Duree. “Nitrogen has fed the algae at the surface and that has cut off the sunlight from the plants below. So we’re losing our crabs, oysters, clams, and the habitat for all the creatures in the bay.”
Many people, including much of the agricultural community, see the law as an attack on private property rights. Rural communities see it as limiting their growth.
Duree says he understands both the objections and the reasons for the law. Population growth has outpaced past efforts, so the amount of nitrogen entering the bay continues to increase.
“We’ve got to do something,” he says. “Septic systems probably contribute around seven percent (of nitrogen). All the low hanging fruit, agriculture and municipal, has been dealt with. A lot of stormwater modifications have been put in place. We have to reduce the amount of nitrogen even as we’re growing, so they’re looking at every avenue.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states signed the Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 1983 resulting in regulations for agricultural pollution and sewage treatment plants. Maryland provided 50 percent funding starting in 1984 to reduce wastewater treatment plant effluent nitrogen levels to 8 mg/L from typical levels of about 18 mg/L. In 2005, the effort expanded to provide 100 percent funding to further reduce nitrogen to 3 mg/L, along with reducing phosphorus from 3 mg/L to just 0.3 mg/L.
Eric Casey, executive director of the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association says septic systems are impacted, even though they are not a leading contributor. “Agricultural runoff, stormwater, and municipal sewer discharges are usually the top three,” he says. “Septics are usually fourth or fifth on the list of factors contributing to impaired waterways when it comes to nitrogen or phosphorous.”
Casey sees most coastal states as having the greatest potential for further legal, regulatory and legislative action involving septic discharges, along with the Great Lakes states. “It’s hard for me to see much happening in interior states where the impairment of water bodies is not quite the same as in the coastal areas,” he says.
Duree thinks such reductions can be achieved. “Onsite system technologies are providing excellent opportunities to reduce nitrogen and protect groundwater,” he says. “As an installer, you have to understand how these systems work and be trained on them so they operate correctly.”
Because homeowners are generally reluctant to put money into their systems, Duree says the industry must be prepared to meet the regulatory demands. “The tradition for septics is out of sight, out of mind,” he says. “If regulators are going to require those systems, there are going to have to be operating and maintenance components to ensure these systems continue operating correctly.”
Pumpers are going to have to get onboard, as well, to make sure they don’t get left behind. “They’re going to have to learn how to pump out these systems without damaging the components,” says Duree.
MOWPA has developed education classes to enable onsite wastewater professionals to adjust to the changes. “During the two years this legislation was being developed, MOWPA has been hard at work developing appropriate courses to support the needs of onsite professionals,” says Duree.
Casey says people should get involved in their state onsite wastewater associations. “As an industry, we’re not as politically organized as the agriculture community and municipal wastewater,” he says. “While there are several state onsite organizations that are fairly effective in their political organization, all of us have to be more aware of what’s happening in our states and get more engaged. We need to do a more effective job communicating the benefits of onsite wastewater technologies to the public and government officials. EPA has long recognized that our industry is a permanent part of the nation’s wastewater infrastructure.
“When properly planned, deployed and managed, onsite systems are as effective as other treatment technologies and should be seen as part of the solution to challenges facing our national infrastructure, not part of the problem.”
Along with nitrogen and phosphorous, Casey sees the next big issues being around “emerging contaminants” like pharmaceuticals. “I expect the next wave of directives from the EPA will center on those,” he says.
As Duree admits, he’d like to cling to the past but he knows he has to adapt. He says, “It’s still going to be a good way to make a living, but at a higher standard of professional practices.”
For more information on the bill, check out www.pumper.com/online_exclusives/2012/11/maryland_senate_bill_236_explained.