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Bay pollution diet plans costly for Anne Arundel

ANNAPOLIS — To comply with the new Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet,” Anne Arundel County will spend millions of dollars upgrading sewage plants, connecting septic systems to public sewers and fixing outdated stormwater controls, county public works officials said.

Though those officials are reluctant to disclose a final price tag, they sent their pollution diet “to-do list” to the state for approval last week.

The list includes the projects the county government can do in the next two years, with an eye toward the ultimate bay cleanup deadline of 2025.

The county already knows how to pay for some of the work, such as sewage plant upgrades. But for most of it, the financing hasn’t been worked out yet.

“There are difficult decisions that need to be made,” said Ron Bowen, the county’s public works director.

Anne Arundel’s tentative plan will be combined with others from counties around the state, as well as from federal properties and farmers, to form a detailed statewide plan for complying with the pollution diet.

The Chesapeake Bay pollution diet was created by the federal government last year as the latest effort to try and improve the health of the bay.

The diet sets out new pollution limits for the states that drain into the bay, with the goal of achieving those levels by 2025.

The plans being developed now describe how the pollution cuts will be made.

The problematic pollutants for the bay are sediment — tiny bits of dirt — and the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen and phosphorus contribute to oxygen-deprived “dead zones” each summer in the bay and its rivers.

The county government’s plan focuses on three sources of pollution:

— Sewage plants: Six of the seven county-owned plants are on schedule to be renovated by 2015, with the state “flush fee” paying most of the costs. The treatment plant in Mayo will eventually be upgraded, too, but the details haven’t been worked out yet.

— Stormwater: Streams will continue to be re-engineered so they properly move rainwater and no longer have eroding banks. Many pipes that dump rainwater into streams will be removed, and holding ponds will be turned into functioning wetlands.

— Septic systems: Half of the county’s 40,000 septic systems will eventually be connected to the public sewer system. For now, Anne Arundel is committing to exploring this option over the next two years.

The first two areas — sewage plant upgrades and stormwater fixes — already are being done, but need to continue and in some cases be accelerated.

But connecting septic systems is a new and expensive strategy for reducing pollution in Anne Arundel. Bowen estimates it could cost $38,000 per home — and neither the county nor most homeowners have that money.

Also, many property owners may be reluctant to part with their septic systems.

“The challenge will be, one, selling the concept . and, two, how can we encourage participation?” Bowen said.

The septic systems alone could cost $760 million — and even more down the road if construction costs rise.

Bowen acknowledged the plans will be expensive and difficult to realize in time. He said the cost would be “a very sizable investment that would challenge any local jurisdiction.”

Even if money were no object, Bowen said, it might not be possible to get all the work done and the pollution reduced on the federal government’s timeline.

The County Council will likely review the plans early next year. Its approval is encouraged, though not required, by the federal government, said Ginger Ellis of the Department of Public Works.

The County Council is considering establishing a new fee on property owners to raise money for stormwater controls. An owner of a single-family home would pay $35. The fee could raise $12 million to $15 million per year.

Once all of the county plans are put together, the state will have a comment period early next year. The plans – officially called “phase two watershed implementation plants” – will be finalized in July.