One vital component of cleaning up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay is enforcing laws already on the books to improve water quality and hold polluters accountable. In Maryland, this task falls to the Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Agriculture (MDA), who have designated staff to review permit applications, conduct follow-up inspection visits and monitor and enforce consent decrees.
Unfortunately, enforcement efforts at these agencies have been severely hampered by inadequate funding. An analysis by the Center for Progressive reform shows that MDE’s Water Management Administration lost nearly one-third of its overall inspection staff between 2000-2016. Personnel resources within MDA’s Office of Resource Conservation have remained stagnant, despite its growing obligations in tracking compliance of nutrient management plans and Annual Implementation Reports for animal feeding operations, and implementation of the crucial new phosphorus management tool regulations.
Just one example of how these personnel shortages create problems: in 2013, an Anne Arundel county community wanted to replace a 400-foot, 30-year-old decaying bulkhead and shoreline with a new living shoreline. MDE denied the project permit citing that the approval window had expired before changes to the permit could be considered by staff. The permit application sat dormant for months without agency review. The local Riverkeeper filed suit and MDE issued the permit after the judge found MDE’s decision to be arbitrary and capricious. Obtaining the final permit approval took more than 4 years, the construction of the project took two weeks. It was believed widely that capacity issues at the agency impacted the review time of this permit.
This situation likely could have been avoided if MDE had sufficient resources to promptly and completely review water permit applications. Both agencies have stated in recent reports that resource constraints limit their enforcement capabilities and more funding is needed.
Fortunately, the cost of hiring more enforcement staff is minimal relative to overall Bay-related spending. Fully restoring MDE’s Water Management Administration inspector positions would only cost about $1.5 million. For context, Maryland spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to protect water quality and restore the Bay.
We can no longer fail to provide sufficient staffing to ensure that programs work, sites are inspected, and pollution is reduced as directed by existing law. It’s bad for water quality and unfair to the taxpayers who have invested heavily in cleaning up the Bay.
The Maryland General Assembly is currently debating whether to designate $400,000 in the state’s general fund for filling vacant enforcement positions at MDE and MDA. These funds are sorely needed, and we urge the General Assembly to provide them.
We’ve all heard the news of the severe budget cuts likely on the horizon from the federal government – including the President’s proposal to completely eliminate funding for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. What is clear is that if we want to clean up our waterways, state leadership is needed now more than ever.
-Jacqueline S. Guild, executive director of Chesapeake Legal Alliance