Patuxent River Plan Recommends One Home Per 30 Acres

By Andrea Shiell, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Dec. 20, 2007)—The Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland passed a resolution to recommend the use of what is known as the Patuxent River 20/20 Plan for future updates to the broader Patuxent River Policy Plan. On Monday, the final draft of the report, entitled Patuxent River 20/20: The Need for Effective Action and Effective Solutions, was released to state and county fanfare and is now available on the group’s website.

At the Thursday evening meeting, Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the Executive Director of the Patuxent Riverkeeper, an advocacy group focused on the watershed, outlined the plan as a comprehensive list of policy changes and updates that would help mitigate pollution from development, agriculture and urban run-off in the waterway.

“There is no single solution that will restore and protect water quality,” said Bevan-Dangel at the Monday press conference. “The approach we are calling for today cites specific actions that can be taken immediately to protect our river.”

The 72-page report contains 23 specific recommendations for state and county governments to restore the river. Among the recommendations are zoning updates to allow one house per thirty acres, thereby minimizing the risk of over-development, reformed critical area laws to protect tidal buffers, the establishment of wetland permit fees and tougher wetland enforcement, adoption of Environmental Management Systems for federal facilities, upgrades to wastewater treatment plants in the area, increases in mass transit funding for areas throughout the watershed, increased permit violation fees for air pollution permit holders, and guidelines for total pollution limits in the river. The goal is to restore the water quality of the Patuxent to what it was in 1950.

County commissioner Lawrence Jarboe was present at the meeting, and commented later on his impressions of the report’s recommendation that zoning updates restrict development to one house per thirty acres (current zoning permits one house per five acres of land in rural and conservation areas).

“Given the choice between vegetation in the river, which could be accommodated and is needed, and drastic zoning measures, I think we’ll support cleaning up the river with vegetation and oyster restoration.” He explained that much of the problem was due to sewage treatment plants in the north, and with respect to zoning recommendations he added “if they feel that strongly about it, why not ask for it to become retroactive? How many people on their acre lot would like having to give it up because it has to be on a bigger lot to save the Patuxent when they’re dumping the sewage upriver? You have to find solutions that really affect the problem rather than creating more problems.”

The 20/20 report states that the three biggest pollutants in the Patuxent are nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment, with the biggest contributors of each coming from urban runoff, agriculture, and wastewater treatment plants. Senator Bernie Fowler, a long-time champion of the clean-up cause, noted on Thursday evening that development in northern counties has posed a serious threat to the health of the river, since “water flows downhill,” and that action is needed now to ensure the watershed’s future.

Development was cited as the number one threat to water quality, accounting for two-thirds of nutrients in the watershed. “We’re pressed for more economic development,” Senator Fowler said, “ six-lane highways, new bridges,” and the report noted that the population in the watershed is expected to grow another 22% by the year 2020, making action at the state and local levels all the more important.

Discussions of the situation noted that in 1963, an estimated three million gallons of waste material were dumped into the river. Today, an estimated 60 million gallons are being dumped. Point source pollution from wastewater treatment plants, industrial polluters, and federal facilities account for roughly a third of the total nutrients in the watershed, including nitrogen and phosphorous deposits that feed overgrowths of algae blooms and block sunlight, impairing the survival of plants and animals on the river floor, also contributing to dead zones where nothing can survive in the river. Sediment deposits from construction sites smother grasses and oyster beds, and produce a milky-brown color in the water. The report cites these as the most obvious symptoms of poor water quality.

When asked at the Tri-County Council Meeting about challenges to the implementation of these policy recommendations, Senator Fowler stated that the number one challenge would be educating the public about the danger posed to the watershed. “We have failed miserably to raise public awareness about the Patuxent River,” he said. “I’m here tonight to sound the alarm...The Patuxent River is dying.”

Commissioner Mattingly was also present at the meeting and had comments about the zoning recommendations as well, indicating the zoning was not high on the list of priorities. “Our efforts have been very much focused on creating easements on property, like the Rural Legacy program in the northern part of the county, which is a main piece of the watershed.” As far as general impressions, he said “I think everyone is anxious to take on this monumental task. A lot of it is dependent on cooperation from the entire river basin. It’s not just a Saint Mary’s County problem.”

The 20/20 report will be presented to state legislatures on February 18 at the annual Legislative Day in Annapolis. At Monday’s press conference, the Riverkeepers also announced plans to release yearly “report cards” on the Patuxent to measure progress. All involved in the project agreed that the report is the first step to finding solutions which Bevan-Dangel described as “multiple and sometimes overwhelming.”

When asked about the timeline for these recommended policy changes, Bevan-Dangel said their goal for getting these recommendations off the page and into action would be the year 2020. At the Tri-County Council meeting, Senator Fowler admitted that many of the report’s recommendations should have been implemented years ago, but “hindsight is always 20/20.

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