Will Maryland’s Governor-elect prescribe a new treatment for bay health?

A recent shift in Maryland’s political landscape could alter the environmental policies that govern the health of one of the nation’s most important ecosystems.

When Governor-elect Larry Hogan (R) enters Annapolis in 2015, he presumably brings with him new strategies for combating the environmental issues now affecting the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary, with a watershed that encompasses six states and the District of Colombia. 

The question of exactly which policies or solutions Hogan feels offers the best hope for sustaining the Bay’s health remain largely unanswered, but many scientists feel there are key issues that must be addressed.   

University of Maryland (UMD) Professor Raghu Murtugudde, who has worked closely on several projects involving the bay, stated that to consider the health of the bay, one must examine its total productivity, its complexity or biodiversity, as well as its resiliency. 

Murtugudde says it is difficult to find a single environmental smoking gun given how heavily managed the bay is, but there are signs of degradation within the watershed.

“The main contributors are still the agriculture and lawns in terms of nutrient loading, construction and paving in terms of sediment and nutrient loading, and commuter miles when it comes to seepage of dripping oil,” Murtugudde stated.  

Measures that involve controlling the runoff of harmful pollutants into the bay would seemingly be a crucial element for Hogan and his policy makers to consider when brainstorming possible solutions.  

In his campaign however, Hogan openly opposed many of the environmental approaches of outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), such as O’Malley’s 2012 “rain tax,” which collects revenue from residents based on the water-resistant surfaces that induce runoff located on their property. 

Dr. Bin Zhang, a Research Associate who formerly supported UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center’s (ESSIC) Chesapeake Bay Forecasting System (CBFS) project, suggested that past runoff policies have proven unsuccessful, either in their effectiveness or implementation.  

“From federal to state levels, many regulations and strategies on reduction of nutrients and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay seem failed or not actually implemented.  Changing current policy under scientific guidance is one urgent thing to do,” Zhang said.

ESSIC’s Murtugudde suggested that one quandary facing the new administration and researchers alike is the delicate balancing act between nurturing state soil resources while also protecting the bay. 

“The trick is still to worry about whether what is good for soil quality is not good for water quality and vice versa.  We need to model [runoff monitoring] more carefully and see what are the most holistic choices in terms of regulation,” Murtugudde advised.

A week after his election, a report surfaced that state and federal experts had backtracked on claims that removing the vast sediment deposits from behind Maryland’s Conowingo Dam could offer the bay improved water quality. 

Hogan had been a supporter of dredging the dam’s sentiment, feeling it offered a more direct and cost effective solution, as compared to more expensive and longer term projects involving storm water fees, farm runoff restrictions, and septic disposal.

Whether the governor-elect proceeds with the dam dredging project or not, environmentalists and Marylanders alike will soon learn what legislation Hogan ultimately unveils to ensure the bay’s lasting health.