Would you rather have a clean Chesapeake Bay or a healthy economy? That question presents a false choice. The field of sustainability has a triple bottom line: environment, economy and society.In the Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources for Frederick County government, we search for ways to give the public the environmental protection they deserve at the best possible price, often finding monetary savings.
This summer, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) submitted its Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) to the Environmental Protection Agency for the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet. My office put together an economic policy analysis on the state’s WIP plans and targets for Frederick County. The dollars, frankly, look unsustainable. The analysis showed the cost of the state’s plan to be $1.89 billion in Frederick County alone, not including agriculture. We published this analysis in our July 16 “Chesapeake Bay TMDL Analysis for Frederick County, Maryland.”
Why are these numbers so high? Let me break down for you what MDE’s plan includes for Frederick County:
- The addition of nitrogen-removing technology in 13,762 septic systems at a cost of about $12,000 apiece, based on costs from MDE’s Bay Restoration Fund Annual Reports. The cost of this item totals $165,144,000. There is no mechanism to pay for most of these except for the Bay Restoration Fund, which has paid for about 84 of these upgrades to date in the county.
- $219,658,338 for Wastewater Treatment Plant upgrades as reported by MDE in the Bay Restoration Fund Annual Reports, with updated costs based on staff reports. These upgrades are part of existing plans by the county and municipalities, and have been written into their permits. Some of the costs are to be borne by ratepayers, some taxpayers, and some other sources.
- Stormwater costs of $1.5 billion as calculated by multiplying the acres of practices in the scenario MDE built for Frederick County by the cost per practice per acre. Costs come from a study MDE commissioned explicitly for this purpose by King and Hagan of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. MDE notes that a different combination of practices meeting the same reductions for the stormwater sector could be calculated by the county, but we chose to use MDE’s assessment. Costs would be borne by taxpayers.I requested costs from the Maryland Department of Agriculture but have not seen any figures.
Does the bay cleanup have to be this expensive? No. What would make it cheaper? Many, many things. Here are some ideas:
- Some practices are really cost-efficient and some are duds. Instead of requiring prescriptive sector allocations, MDE could require the pollution reductions. Most stormwater retrofits cost several thousands of dollars for every pound of pollutant they remove, so it would be cheaper to meet the reductions for the stormwater sector by doing something else, like agricultural cover crops that also preserve valuable soil for farmers.
- Not applying fertilizer on your lawn? Free. By the way, do us all a favor and stop fertilizing your lawn. Then let me know that you did it so that we can take credit for it. In all honesty, an urban fertilizer elimination program should be implemented on a bay-wide scale to take advantage of efficiencies related to the size and administration of the program.
- Allow the market to establish the cheapest price to reduce pollution. That means expanding the sectors eligible for trading and the geographic area within a trading system. If septic systems can reduce only 5 pounds of nitrogen per year per $12,000 investment, that’s $2,400 per pound permanently reduced! Let other sectors pay for credits from, for example, a farmer’s wastewater treatment for large dairy operations. These kinds of credits are being generated in Lancaster, Pa., but the unintended consequences of MDE’s trading limits make such a solution in Maryland less attractive. By adding treatment to livestock operations, we could also protect drinking water supplies from the risk of manure spills.
- Look to the sky. A third of all of the nitrogen that goes to the bay comes from the air because of pollution from sources such as vehicles and power plants, yet agriculture and urban lands are expected to address it through practices on the ground. The problem should be addressed at the source. For example, MDE could analyze the cost-effectiveness of atmospheric reductions from Tier III air quality standards for vehicle fuel in the Clean Air Act. According to the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, this standard would reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by about 25 percent from the existing fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles and pay for the anticipated 8 cents per gallon in monetized health benefits, such as reduced asthma deaths.You don’t have to choose between clean water and fiscal responsibility. I believe you can have both. And that’s the essence of sustainability.
Shannon Moore is manager of Frederick County’s Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources.