Montgomery County Should Maintain Efforts To Fight Region’s Fastest-Growing Source of Water Pollution
This letter was submitted by local environmentalists Eliza Cava, Diane Cameron, Kit Gage, Sylvia Tognetti and Caitlin Wall
This letter was submitted by Eliza Cava of the Audubon Naturalist Society, Diane Cameron of Conservation Montgomery, Kit Gage of Friends of Sligo Creek, Sylvia Tognetti of Montgomery County Sierra Club and Caitlin Wall of Potomac Conservancy
To the editor:
As leaders within the Montgomery County Stormwater Partners Network, a coalition of 31 local, statewide and national environmental groups devoted to protecting and restoring the streams of Montgomery County, we are writing to comment on the April 11 article “Montgomery County Aims To Overhaul Stormwater Management Program.” The environmental community is intimately familiar with the county’s existing stormwater program, having championed its creation and growth for many years. However, we were surprised by the nature and magnitude of the changes, which the article correctly notes were made behind the scenes, and which we learned the outlines of only a month ago and are still seeking details on from the county executive, County Council and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Some of these changes were presented by the county executive and then immediately changed—for example, the revised capital budget proposal repeatedly described moving to a public-private partnership (P3) model in which a private entity would have a profit incentive to only pick the cheapest projects. Instead, now the DEP will be releasing a single design, build and maintain contract that will leave DEP in an oversight and regulatory role. The criteria included in this contract will be very important, as the DEP has previously committed to using green infrastructure for 60 percent of its stormwater work—this means rain gardens, trees and wetlands that not only slow and filter stormwater, but also provide wildlife habitat, clean our air and offer green space to communities. Green infrastructure is often derided as too expensive, but it can be done in a cost-effective manner and we see it as the future of stormwater management for Montgomery County because it combines so many additional community benefits.
Even if the contracting agreement includes goals for green infrastructure, there are other elements of this overhaul that are concerning. In order to balance the budget, the county cancelled 26 stormwater projects, some of which were already well into design phases, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in sunk costs. The county has a list of an additional 44 projects (locations and details unknown) that will be delayed until the new contractor has an opportunity to select them (or not). And the county is assuming the actions mandated in the next Clean Water Act permit issued by the state will be very low—lower than the state has indicated, lower than Montgomery County has clearly demonstrated it can achieve, and, we think, far lower than is needed to achieve clean streams and healthy rivers.
Ultimately, that’s what this debate comes down to. Stormwater is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay, and it whooshes through and destroys our local stream valleys, making urban streams into muddy, toxic gullies. Montgomery County has long been a leader in the state and the region for our forward-thinking approach to managing stormwater pollution. Do we want to make budget decisions now that only aim to achieve the bare minimum of what the state could possibly ask for? That’s too low a bar for us. Or do we want to keep up the progress on cleaning our streams?
Here’s what we think the county should do:
- Demonstrate clearly to the public that any design/build/maintain contract will uphold the following principles: Attain watershed-specific restoration and protection goals; ensure public involvement in project planning and review; ensure the county’s commitment to 60 percent green infrastructure is fulfilled; prioritize existing investments (i.e. sunk costs in 44 “delayed” projects); and enable the next executive administration to be adaptable and flexible, especially to meet the needs of a higher permit requirement.
- Promote public transparency moving forward. This includes more public outreach on the Water Quality Protection Charge and what it funds, and quarterly meetings with clean water stakeholders.
- Promote greater coordination between the departments that conduct stormwater work—Parks, DEP, Department of Transportation, etc. All should work together to achieve all the permits within the county, and to ensure our streams and rivers are cleaned.
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