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C. Fraser Smith: Curbing septic systems to clean up the bay

Hemmed in by fiscal and political circumstances, Gov. Martin O’Malley and his speech writers labored mightily and brought forth septic tanks, or a ban of them, to be precise.

Offered as a near-throwaway at the end of his State of the State address, the proposal landed without much immediate impact. It should have been right at the top of the list of initiatives unless the idea was soften the landing.

The speech was widely dismissed by members of the General Assembly as harmless. Empty of imagination, lacking a challenge, boring even.

Wrong, actually.

The reception was understandable, given the way of such speeches.

One had been fighting off the vague but experience-based expectation of something underwhelming. These speeches are often brain dumps in which every possible notion is put out on an equal footing with every other notion.

That seemed at least as likely as usual this year for various reasons, one of them well-known: There’s no money for initiatives. Worse, really. We’re more than a billion in the hole. And there’s little if any appetite for raising taxes.

Thus the prospect of a governor having to huff and puff in search of the right rhetorical tone, probably knowing he would be hyperventilating to no avail. There was no clarion call, nothing that might rally even his own Democratic troops to action. He’d already wet-blanketed the faithful by inviting them to raise taxes on their own if they were so inclined.

A muted bombshell

But at the very end of his 29-minute oration, O’Malley offered his muted bombshell, a call to prohibit any more septic systems in new developments of more than five or six homes.

This was greeted a day later as nothing less than a bid to curb suburban sprawl and help restore the Chesapeake Bay — major objectives. Here was something worthy of a splash.

Sure enough, the usual suspects rushed forward to predict dire consequences. The still-floundering economy would be dealt a blow. Job creation would suffer.

Republican members of the assembly heard the governor’s accompanying concerns about sprawl with related worries about big government over-reaching yet again. The GOP used to be a strong advocate for Chesapeake Bay recovery and may still be. But its reflex to protect every iota of individual liberty can get in the way of community-saving restrictions.

O’Malley’s proposal has the beauty of accelerating the effort to make some dramatic contribution to the bay’s health. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the federal government, multi-state compacts and virtually every Maryland governor for decades has declared support for the restoration.

None of it seems to have the kind of impact everyone wants. We see a holding action for the most part — better than nothing, of course, but more is needed to make real progress.

The culprit is nitrogen

“There is one area of reducing pollution where so far we have totally failed,” the governor said, “and in fact it has gotten much worse and that is pollution from the proliferation of new septic systems — systems which by their very design are intended to leak sewage into our bay and water tables.”

Nitrogen captured by septic systems can move through a drain field into groundwater and from there into the bay via streams. Nitrogen is one of the culprits in the growth of algae blooms which help to create “dead zones” inhospitable to fish.

O’Malley’s proposal is certain to provoke long and loud opposition from home builders, septic tank makers, installers and others who say cleaning the bay will mean economic hardship on the shore.

The assembly has dealt with all of these issues in the past and it has found ways to mitigate if not end the flow of nitrogen into the bay waters. Progress has usually been incremental. That is likely to be the case again, but something more is needed and the governor has thrown down the gantlet.

Lawmakers and governors are not obliged to make their deliberations entertaining. It might be preferable to have a dull 90 days in Annapolis.

But when there are major problems to confront and when there are ways to solve them, it’s the job of governors and legislators to act.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.