We who make our living lamenting the lack of progress on improving the environment must applaud when progress does rear its head, even as we refrain from clapping too hard.
A decade ago, there wasn't much of anything hopeful to say about septic tanks from the bay's standpoint. I called them "outhouse technology in the 21st century" and "a 50-year-old grossly polluting waste system."
Septic tanks had mostly fulfilled their original purpose of protecting human health where central sewers weren't available by filtering bacteria in household waste through the soil.
But this very process ensures that bay-polluting nitrogen in wastes passes into groundwater and thence to streams, rivers and the Chesapeake. So for bay water quality, there was no such thing as a failing septic tank. They were all failing, all of the time.
Septic tanks also served as a crude substitute for zoning to protect rural lands from development. Significant acreages in most counties were too steep, rocky or soggy to pass soil percolation tests required to site homes on septic. But still there was sprawl — development that used large lots and prime farm soils to enable developers to pass "perc" tests.
The septic story had little prospect of changing, I wrote in 2002.
But now, for the first time since outhouse days, the septic tank as we have known it is on the run. In Maryland, the government finally decided that restricting septics is critical to both water quality and anti-sprawl goals. That's a powerful linkage.
Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed essentially ending development that used septic systems — restricting all but minor subdivisions of a few homes. His proposal closely followed what Worcester County on the lower Eastern Shore has been doing successfully to protect its farmland.
Fierce opposition resulted in the General Assembly last year passing a weaker but still restrictive law. It's estimated the law will eliminate about 50,000 of 116,000 new lots that otherwise would have developed using septic systems in the next couple of decades.
Also, beginning this year, a regulation pushed by Mr. O'Malley requires that all septic tanks that will still be installed must use a new, more expensive technology that cuts nitrogen pollution in half. Virginia is considering the same technology.
No good deed goes unpunished, and pushback has already begun, part of a broader agenda by several counties that allege restoring the Chesapeake amounts to a "war on rural Maryland."
1000 Friends of Maryland, an environmental land use group, reports several counties are working already on ways to avoid restricting rural development. Some of the most worrisome are Charles, Cecil and Queen Anne's counties, the group says, as all are under substantial growth pressure.
The law allows counties to designate a portion of their lands outside areas planned for sewer systems where continued sprawl development on septic tanks can continue. This is where some jurisdictions will try to get away with murder, while others will be responsible.
The state's Department of Planning can jawbone against this and require additional public hearings. The law also precludes septic-based sprawl in areas "dominated" by forestland and agriculture (although the precise meaning of "dominated" was left vague).
The bottom line is that, unchecked, several counties probably can — and clearly will try to — keep on sprawling and polluting. But just as clearly, the new law affords a footing for citizens who care about farms, forests and the bay to fight back, to engage in a war for rural Maryland.
Here's why it's critical. While the progress with septic tanks is remarkable given the last half century of none, it's still far from the progress the bay needs.
Both with water pollution and sprawl, the new septic requirements only slow the rate at which things will get worse.
The less-polluting technology will apply mainly to new construction, not to most of the 400,000 septic tanks that already exist across Maryland. (A program to replace failing septics with new technology has addressed less than 1 percent of existing septic tanks.)
And while new and improved septic tanks cut pollution by about half compared with older versions, they still produce several times as much pollution, per capita, as a modern sewage treatment plant.
"The total [nitrogen] load will not go down from all this … just grow more slowly," said Jay Prager, an expert on septic tanks for the Maryland Department of Environment.
Meanwhile, he said, to meet its 2025 federal bay cleanup goals, Maryland must actually reduce septic pollution by nearly 40 percent.
Similarly, while the state's recent restriction on the development of rural lots using septic systems is bona fide and important progress on combating sprawl, it still allows thousands of such new homes a year.
"What we've done is a real game changer," said Richard Hall, Maryland's secretary of planning. "At the same time it still means we're just digging ourselves into a hole slower. What we need is to quit digging the hole."
Tom Horton is a former longtime writer on environmental issues for The Sun. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.