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Hearing of the Maryland General Assembly Environmental Matters Committee - Septics Legislation


Location: Unknown

Thank you for the opportunity to join you here today.

On Wednesday, I had the occasion to wade into Lake Bonnie in Caroline County -- one of the counties that's enacted many of the same steps that we're asking to take as a State.

This lake is no longer open for swimming because of pollution. We proposed the reforms this Committee considers today, because we do not want more of our waters to suffer the same fate. While certainly the causes vary from watershed to watershed, the fact of the matter is that the proliferation of major housing developments on septic, promises to be a very, very impactful and harmful cause of Bay degradation in the years ahead.

Approximately 30% of the degradation of the waters around this historic state capital -- the Severn, the South River, and the Magothy -- comes from septic systems. Not intentional, but exponential.

By turning a blind eye to the proliferation of major housing developments, as a State we are, in essence, feeding donuts to a patient with a heart condition.

Septic systems, by their very design, are intended to leak sewage into our Bay and into our water tables. And because they require large lots, their proliferation -- and the proliferation of major housing develops on septic -- has the effect of carving up our agricultural and rural land which is so very important to our economy and way of life as Marylanders.

With the reforms we are proposing, we don't seek to do away with systems already in place, or force homeowners to convert their existing systems. Rather, we aim to stop this situation from becoming worse.

Because of the tough choices we've made together, the Bay's waters are growing healthier. Last year, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science gave the Bay its highest grade since 2002.

We have achieved over 80% of our 2-year milestones and today, the crab and oyster spat populations are the highest they have been since 1997.

And working together, we're making choices that will continue to move us forward. Last year, farmers planted a record number of cover crops. And through our Watershed Implementation Plan, we project that we'll be able to reduce nitrogen pollution by 10 million additional pounds per year.

There are four main drivers of nitrogen pollution in the Bay. One of them is agricultural run-off, where we've made some great progress. Another is sewage treatment plant discharge, where we've made some great progress. On the third, storm water run-off, we're starting to move our graph in the right direction.

The one piece of the four main drivers that we have been unable to get a handle on is the pollution from the proliferation of septic systems throughout our State. In fact, it's actually gotten much worse -- and it's threatens to undermine the progress we're making in other areas.

No doctor in the world can save a poison victim without first cutting off the source of the poison. But we've been operating while the patient is still being fed a steady diet of (in this case), nitrogen. And it's a diet of nitrogen that we must reduce by 21% to comply with the EPA's mandate by 2020.

Over the last quarter century, our nitrogen load from septic systems increased 32% -- even as we've driven the overall load down 37%.

And the $32 million we've invested in retrofitting existing septic systems has been undone by new system installation.

Over the next 25 years, new Maryland developments relying on septic systems are expected to account for 26% of our overall growth and yet they will account for 76% of new nitrogen pollution from human activity.

The sprawl of major housing developments on septic is a public health hazard. The hazard it poses to the health of our waters is a hazard to jobs and our economy. Septic-incentivized sprawl systems mean fewer acres of farmland. Fewer agriculture acres. A weakened tourist economy. And less revenue for our recreational and commercial fishing industries. According to our most recent data (2008), our State's recreational and commercial seafood and fishing industry generate more than $2.6 billion annually. A healthier Bay means more jobs and economic growth. A sicker Bay means less.

Septics also pose a health hazard for our fellow citizens -- threatening our drinking water and the water in which we swim.

Between 2010 and 2035, nitrogen loads from new major septic housing developments are projected to increase our nitrogen load by 2.7 million pounds per year. Just to off-set it, we'd have to retrofit 362,500 existing septic systems at a cost of $4.4 billion,… or plant 375,000 additional cover crops at a cost of $22 million per year,… or retrofit more than 875,000 acres of urban land at a cost of between $20,000 to $50,000 per acre,… or upgrade the largest wastewater treatment plant in Maryland at a cost of $500 million.

That's just to off-set the increased nitrogen load from new households.

The reforms we're proposing will prevent 1.5 million pounds in added nitrogen pollution, the equivalent of 38% of the restoration efforts required of Maryland's farmers under the EPA's "pollution diet.'

What these reforms will not do is ban septics, or force everyone on septics to connect to sewer systems. They are not projected to compromise rural land values, because they are unlikely to alter demand.

The bill is designed to halt the further expansion of large housing developments on septic across Maryland's remaining rural and agricultural landscape.

It says that new residential subdivisions can only use individual, on-site systems if they use nitrogen removal technology. Otherwise, they may still connect to shared or multi-use sewerage systems.

Earlier this week, I testified in favor of Estate Tax reforms that will protect Maryland family farmers from losing their farms after they've lost a family member.

These septics reforms will also protect our agricultural heritage and the 19,000 Maryland jobs supported by Maryland's 12,800 farms. By 2030, septic sprawl is projected to contribute to the loss of more than 312,000 acres of farmland.

By restoring the health of the Bay and preserving farmland, we will be able to create more jobs and generate billions of dollars in economic activity. Thank you for your consideration of these reforms. I'm happy to answer whatever questions you may have.

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