Managing Stormwater for Safe Swimming

Fish kill on the Choptank River in Maryland, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay | © eutrophication&hypoxia

Fish kill on the Choptank River in Maryland, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay | © eutrophication&hypoxia

Here on the east coast we’re in the midst of a heat wave and some of our major waterways are unsafe for a cool swim. At Jones Falls in Baltimore’s inner-harbor hundreds of fish are dying. Experts are testing the fish and water but they speculate that high heat combined with an overload of nutrients is choking the supply of oxygen fish need to survive. Stormwater runoff may be to blame.

Just a month ago, the harbor received a C- on its Healthy Harbor report card. This represents an improvement from past years but the report still points to some very poor conditions, especially those representing nutrients and associated with reduced dissolved oxygen—nitrogen and phosphorus.

Both the fish kill and report card remind us that Baltimore faces a tough challenge to meet its quest, announce a year and a half ago, to ensure the harbor is fishable and swimmable by 2020. It is a laudable but bold goal; one the Clean Water Act hung its hat on in 1972 and a driver for the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Achieving healthy water goals for the waters of the U.S., the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore Harbor will require:

  • innovation and smart growth planning such as using green infrastructure solutions for managing stormwater that developers find viable,
  • sustainable investment based on the true costs of clean water and recognizing the value of green infrastructure, and
  • supporting rules that drive measurable clean water goals and make polluters accountable for their stormwater runoff contributions.

In Baltimore and other urban areas, green infrastructure includes practices that reduce polluted runoff, flooding and erosion from hard, impervious surfaces such as parking lots and buildings by mimicking natural surfaces or restoring natural hydrology. Throughout the Chesapeake Bay, cities and towns are recognizing the value of green infrastructure and developing investment strategies, such as fee structures for land owners based on impervious cover.

In fact, fees are now mandated for many Maryland municipalities and Baltimore’s much debated stormwater program that emphasizing green infrastructure and introducing fees based on impervious cover is currently available for public comment. Baltimore’s fee structure attempts to be equitable and is complimented with incentives that encourage reductions in impervious cover and green infrastructure practices.

But, ensuring large polluters, typical those with the greatest impervious surface area, control their contribution of stormwater runoff is also important to Baltimore, cities throughout the mid-Atlantic and across the nation.

With temperatures pushing 100 degrees, Baltimore city dwellers must be enthusiastically supporting smart planning, sustainable investment and strong rules to improve stormwater management and have clean water that’s healthy for swimming by fish and humans.