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November 18, 2012

Potomac Conservancy warns of pollution from runoff, sees urgent need to make changes

Toxic chemical content still high in river, says group

ANNAPOLIS — The Potomac River’s health stands to suffer setbacks if the region does not change its development and building standards, according to the Potomac Conservancy.

The conservancy’s sixth annual State of the Nation’s River reports improvements to the river since the metropolitan region has worked to reduce pollution at sources such as water treatment plants, but stormwater runoff stands to undo those gains, a group of speakers said during a conservancy teleconference Thursday.

The conservancy urges Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia to get new development and redevelopment to cut back on nonporous pavement — streets, sidewalks, curbs and roofs. That would mean less water will travel along pavement and curbs, pick up toxins and pollutants, and get into the river, speakers said.

Citing a projection that the region will add 2 million people — and buildings for them — in 20 years, the conservancy sees an urgent need to make more changes. That growth would make the region the size of Houston,  speakers said.

Pollution in parts of the Potomac is still so high that it is not safe to swim, boat or fish, and a large percentage of male smallmouth bass show unnatural female sex characteristics, the conservancy found. Some toxic chemicals found in the river could get into the drinking water, speakers said.

“We’ve got to take some immediate action,” said Hedrick Belin, conservancy president.

At this point, 70 percent of pollution reduction will have to come from the local level, Belin said. Local planning and zoning addresses the building practices and regulations that can prevent the runoff, he said.

Frederick County is on board with the latest regulations that address stormwater runoff, said Rick Masser, Frederick County chief environmental compliance inspector.

The 2007 stormwater regulations that apply to the county include management techniques such as green roofs, rain barrels and porous roads that are being put to use, he said in an interview.

Masser said the county not only complies, but also investigates to find out how pollutants get into the stormwater.

 “We look for nonpoint source pollution,” Masser said.

Agriculture still contributes to some of the pollution, but the bulk of the progress can now be made using new building techniques that allow water to stay closer to the ground where it fell, Belin said.

Streets that allow water to penetrate to the ground and rooftop greenery that captures rainwater are among the initiatives Washington is promoting, “making the District spongier,” said Jeffrey Seltzer with the District of Columbia’s Department of the Environment.

Regulations and financial incentives are directing new development to retain the first 1 or 2 inches of rainwater so it does not enter the wastewater system, Seltzer said.

“Development has to be done differently ... in a smarter way that treats rainwater as a resource,” Seltzer said.

The conservancy is advocating that Maryland require the 10 local jurisdictions, including Frederick County, to develop comprehensive financing mechanisms to pay for their polluted runoff programs by June 30.

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