Storm brings muddy washouts - inevitable?
Tropical Storm Nicole dumped a ton of rain on Maryland as its remnants blew north today, and in the process it washed tons of sediment and mud into local streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
My colleague, Baltimore Sun columnist and gardening blogger Susan Reimer, spotted a muddy torrent washing off the construction site for the new Germantown elementary school in Annapolis this morning. You can read her take on it here. When Sun photographer Kim Hairston got there to document the runoff, Rob Savidge, environmental compliance inspector for the city of Annapolis, was wading through the caremel-colored curbside stream.
"The contractor hasn't done anything wrong," he said. "The problem is we have had more than five inches of rain within a few hours, and it has overwhelmed the restraints." The school site had three ponds dug to catch runoff, he noted. A black plastic silt fence also can be seen lining the street.
The ponds or sediment traps on the school site are only designed to hold the first inch of rain, and slowly release the water after the sediment settles out, he explained. With five inches or more, they simply ran over.
Environmentalists aren't buying that explanation, though.
"This is the reason our waterways continue to be polluted despite the continuing promises by politicians to protect our waterways when they run for office," emailed Fred Kelly, the Severn Riverkeeper. "The present sediment control rules are inadequate, and the permits are licenses to pollute and violate the Clean Water Act."
Alison Prost, Maryland office attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wasn't prepared to go quite that far, but said more resources for inspection and oversight are needed.
And, she added, "we need tougher standards, not just for the everyday rain event, but for the large storms like this, which we are seeing more and more. There needs to be a contingency plan for weather events like this."
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said builders and contractors are only required to keep the first inch of rain from washing off their construction sites because that covers 90 percent of all the precipitation events in the state.
"This storm is a rare event," Apperson said, with rainfall in some places on par with a 100-year storm. He added: "Silt fences and sediment controls are never going to be 100 percent fail-safe."
What Apperson didn't say is that the standards involve a bit of a balancing act. To ensure that zero mud washed off the land in a storm you probably couldn't clear the land in the first place. Controlling more extreme rain events would be far more costly, and maybe at some point not feasible.
"It's pretty horrible to see," Savidge acknowledged of the school and other washouts he saw today. But, he added, "it's just what happens."
What's a little muddy water, you ask? Sediment washing off land clouds the water, smothering fish eggs in fresh water streams and killing off underwater grasses, which provide habitat for fish and crabs. The bay currently has less than half the aquatic grasses needed to restore it to health, scientists say.
So as we watch big storms like today's washing mud into already struggling streams, we're left to ask, what price progress? The students and their families in Annapolis no doubt deserve a new school. Everyone followed the rules in this case, it seems. But is there a way to build without risking such washouts - and are we willing to pay for it to protect the bay's fish, oysters and crabs?
Thanks to Susan for bringing this up and doing much of the reporting.
(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)