28 Feb

Septic vs. Sewer: Limiting systems will help the bay

This Week’s Take


Published 02/26/11

There is a saying that “crazy” is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. This adage applies well when discussing how Maryland should grow.

Whether Maryland will grow is not the question. Strong economic drivers like the state’s innovation-friendly economy, major private and public sector employers, and a high quality of life mean almost half a million new households for our state by 2035.

The question is how should Maryland grow: Will growth be fair and equitable, sustaining our economy and protecting our beloved Chesapeake Bay?

Not if we keep doing the same thing, over and over again. The percentage of new development outside areas designated for growth has been on the rise for two decades. Over the past 10 years, two-thirds of the land lost to development was farmland and forest in our rural, natural areas. This trend is not environmentally sustainable.

These destructive sprawling patterns cost taxpayers dearly: for every tax dollar collected from sprawl development, it costs the local governments $1.20 to serve these far-flung subdivisions with roads, schools and emergency services. In short, the local governments and taxpayers lose money when servicing sprawl development, according to multiple sources.

And so many of these new houses are built on high-polluting septic systems, which generate eight to 10 times more pollution than a house hooked to a sewage treatment plant.

Once again, taxpayers foot the bill for cleaning up the mess from the septic systems. In fact, the state helps pay for a septic system owner to upgrade his system so that it doesn’t pollute so much. Maryland taxpayers pay at least $12,000 per house to upgrade a septic system to reduce nitrogen pollution. This is one of the least efficient ways to spend money in order to clean up our rivers and streams.

In fact, new growth on septic systems has completely wiped out Maryland’s $32 million septic system improvement investment fund, leaving little for the 430,000 existing septic systems we already have. This trend is not economically sustainable.

Under current growth policies, we can expect nearly 150,000 more houses in the wrong places using antiquated technology that pollutes 10 times as much as households on shared or public sewage treatment systems. This is unfair, unsustainable, and perhaps, even crazy. But true.

The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2011, introduced by Del. Stephen Lafferty and Sen. Paul Pinsky and strongly endorsed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, would restore fairness and sustainability to how Maryland grows.

The bill, HB1107/SB846, would require that the wastewater from new developments meet higher wastewater treatment standards. Developments of five homes or more could either utilize a sewage treatment facility, or install a shared community system to treat wastewater to a higher standard. Developments of fewer than five homes could still use septic systems, as long as they include nitrogen pollution reduction technology.

What would not be allowed is widespread sprawl development using outdated technology that threatens our water quality and quality of life. That would be doing the same thing over and over again.

Opponents wonder if it’s worth the effort as septic systems aren’t currently the biggest Chesapeake Bay polluter. But for more urban rivers like the Severn, South and West/Rhode, septics are a huge problem.

And rural or urban, pollution from new septic systems will far outstrip the increase in pollution from centralized sewage treatment systems if nothing is done.

Opponents are also concerned that these improvements will somehow devalue the land, but we haven’t seen the evidence. Study after study shows that rural land holds its value – and sometimes becomes more valuable – when protected from poorly-planned major subdivision activity. According to a certified appraiser, land value in Kent County is remarkably similar to that in Queen Anne’s, despite Kent’s stronger and more effective controls on harmful sprawl.

This legislation will help fix the way we grow in Maryland, preserving agricultural lands and protecting the health of our streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. It will ensure fair and fiscally-responsible development that improves our quality of life. Especially in such fragile economic times, we cannot afford to throw good money, and good land, after poor development decisions. The alternative is just plain crazy.



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