Septic tanks and development policy, or: How to win over one of the world's toughest audiences

A septic tank being installed. Photo by Flickr user forestfolks.
It is not often that a desk-bound policy wonk can grab the attention of a pre-schooler by talking about her day, but I have found a new way to connect with my four-year-old twin boys: toilets, and where stuff goes when you flush them.

To be more specific, my work recently has dealt with septic tanks and the challenges they pose to smart growth development. The fascinating world of state sewage regulation got even more fascinating last summer when Maryland’s Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Treatment gathered to work through the complex relationship between septic systems, sprawling subdivisions, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland’s Department of Planning estimates that each new household that relies on a septic tank will generate about 23 pounds of nitrogen per year, compared to just 2.5 pounds per household connected to a wastewater treatment plant. If the coming decades’ growth follows current trends, roughly 26% of new households coming to Maryland will rely on septic systems. That quarter of the population will be responsible for three-quarters of the future nitrogen pollution load. What’s so bad about nitrogen? When it leaches into soil and drains into the Chesapeake Bay, nitrogen encourages the growth of algae that use up oxygen and block out sunlight, eventually creating dead zones.

In addition to these hazards, septic tanks raise growth and development concerns too. Septic systems often accompany homes and businesses in rural areas where public sewage treatment would be cost-prohibitive. These systems also make it possible to create large, low-density subdivsions outside of locally-designated growth areas – too often creating additional pressure on restricted local budgets.

Last year, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley proposed the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2011, which included a ban on new, large, septic-dependent developments. O’Malley’s proposal sparked a heated battle over the state’s tough new water standards, and the costs and benefits of banning new septic tanks. As far as we can tell, no other state has considered such a ban (please tell us if we missed something!).

Ultimately that bill failed in the General Assembly, but now Delegate Maggie McIntosh, appointed to lead the Task Force, is ushering more than two-dozen members, representing diverse interests and perspectives, through an in-depth exploration of the impacts, costs and implications of different policies and funding strategies designed to improve Maryland’s long-term economic strength by reducing pollution from septics and promoting smarter growth.

As part of our work helping local leaders find smart strategies to meet their development goals, Smart Growth America will be reviewing and commenting on the Maryland Task Force’s work later this year. The recommendations will weigh in on how to solve the problems septic tanks pose, and what steps the state can take to reach those solutions. The Task Force will report to Governor O’Malley with a suite of recommendations by December 1 of this year, for new legislation to be introduced early in 2012. I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on them – let’s just call it background research in support of more bonding with my little ones.