CUMBERLAND — During a time of growing rainfall, flooding and runoff pollution caused by climate change, a new report documents that Pennsylvania and Maryland have gone backwards in their efforts to control stormwater pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Pennsylvania’s 2019 Bay cleanup plan will allow almost 7 million pounds more nitrogen pollution — the bay’s biggest killer — from urban and suburban stormwater runoff in the state into the estuary by the bay cleanup deadline of 2025, compared to the state’s plan back in 2012, according to the report by the Environmental Integrity Project, “Stormwater Backup in the Chesapeake Region.”
Maryland’s most recent plan will allow about 1.5 million pounds more nitrogen from stormwater runoff into the estuary from the state by the cleanup deadline, compared to the state’s 2012 plan, which used 2009 as a starting point.
Fewer investments by these two states in stormwater pollution control projects —including converting parking lots to green spaces, planting trees and building rain gardens — will hurt urban communities with large expanses of blacktop, which act as heat islands in the summer, a problem that is becoming worse because of climate change, according to EIP’s report.
“It is inexcusable that Maryland and Pennsylvania are backtracking on their commitments to control urban stormwater pollution at a time when climate change and increasing rainfall are having such a huge impact on the Chesapeake Bay,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the report.
“These states must step up, start planning for the precipitation and flooding we are already experiencing because of global warming and invest in the kinds of stormwater control projects and green spaces that will provide a range of benefits to both the Chesapeake Bay and urban and suburban communities.”
Water quality monitoring by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper in Harrisburg this summer found E. coli bacteria levels averaging 2.5 times higher than safe for swimming or water contact recreation, with significantly worse fecal contamination downstream of the city’s combined stormwater and sewage outfalls.
Virginia is heading in the opposite direction of Pennsylvania and Maryland and is planning and investing more to stop urban and suburban runoff.
Virginia’s 2019 Bay cleanup plan would reduce nitrogen pollution from runoff into the bay by an additional 540,000 pounds by the bay cleanup deadline of 2025, compared to its 2012 plan.
Together, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania account for 90% of the stormwater pollution in the bay.
“If Virginia can step up its efforts to stop stormwater pollution running into our rivers and streams and ultimately the bay, there is no reason that Pennsylvania and Maryland should be backsliding,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake.
“Because of climate change and increased rainfall and flooding, this is really an area in which all the states — and EPA — should be increasing their planning and investments, not the opposite.”
Growing amounts of rainfall, driven by climate change, have been inundating the Chesapeake Bay region, with record-setting precipitation in 2018 in Baltimore (72 inches), Harrisburg (62 inches), Richmond (64 inches) and Washington, D.C. (67 inches).
The amount of fresh water pouring into the nation’s largest estuary was in 2019 by far the highest ever recorded, averaging 130,750 cubic feet per second, according to U.S. Geological Survey.
At the same time, suburban sprawl in the Chesapeake Bay region has been adding more blacktop and other impervious surfaces that funnel more polluted runoff into rivers, streams and the bay.
Since the bay cleanup plan was launched in 2009, the amount of developed land in the bay watershed has increased by about 300,000 acres — an area six times the size of the District of Columbia.
Because of the increasing amount of development and rainfall, the stormwater planning of many municipalities is outdated, leading to more pollution and increased risks of flooding, according to EIP’s study.
EIP’s report scrutinized four cities with outdated combined sewage and stormwater systems — Cumberland; Washington, D.C.; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Lynchburg, Virginia, and found that all of them are designing infrastructure improvements based on outdated and overly conservative assumptions about rainfall.
The worst case was in Cumberland, which is planning on only 37 inches of annual rainfall as it designs an upgraded pipe system, when in reality 48 inches have been falling each year over the last five years.