Dunes, trails and sea-level rise all part of ‘Small talk’

Parishioners at one local Catholic church have a moral goal to “protect God’s creation.” When they realized the environmental mission of Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC) aligns with their own, they invited the department head to speak at St. Ann Catholic Church in Bethany Beach on Dec. 3.

“We are at an intersection of policy, politics and science,” said Secretary David Small, a 27-year DNREC employee.

The Worcester County, Md., native has lived in Delaware since the mid-1980s.

DNREC oversees everything from state parks to hazardous materials. Although he believes DNREC employees are especially invested in their jobs to protect the land, “I don’t think we can get away with” ignoring the economic impacts of a healthy environment. For instance, tourism is based upon people wanting to visit clean beaches. Outdoor recreation nets $1.1 billion in employee salaries and $304 million in tax revenue, Small said.

Small covered numerous topics, from energy to wastewater:

• Solar energy is approaching fossil fuels in terms of affordability, Small said. Energy companies are starting to lease solar equipment to consumers, an “attractive model to avoid out-of-pocket, up-front costs” for solar panels.

Electricity is still pricey on the Delmarva Peninsula, which imports more electric power than it produces.

• Air pollution is imported, too, unfortunately.

“We are downwind from the Midwest,” where most of Delaware’s air pollution originates, Small said. “Many states in the East may end up in litigation against the EPA to combat this.”

The EPA could enforce more control, targeting pollution sources, especially since science can pinpoint where the air particles originate, and “95-five percent of pollution comes from upwind sources,” Small said. “We believe that we have done just about everything we can do,” down to regulating leak-resistant gasoline containers in Delaware.

• Recycling has reduced the amount of garbage streaming into landfills annually. In 2013, about 42 percent of waste was diverted from the regular garbage stream. That’s an increase from 32 percent in 2009.

The more people recycle, the better.

“I don’t want to be Secretary” when Delaware has to choose a site for a new landfill, Small said.

• Sea-level rise is now part of all state agencies’ future planning, from transportation to social services.

Some people in the St. Ann’s audience were surprised to hear Delaware has lowest average land elevation of any state — lower even than Louisiana.

“I’m very encouraged to hear local communities discuss future land-use planning” regarding sea-level rise, Small said.

Markell’s executive order instructs state agencies to consider how they’ll work around sea-level rise. “I think it will be a roadmap to the future for agencies like ours.”

• Beach replenishment may need more money. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to a 50-year maintenance plan, footing 65 percent of the bill (pending Congressional budgets).

Delaware’s 35 percent share is mostly funded by a 1 percent tax on hotels, but Small is concerned Delaware won’t be able to meet its obligation. Because local governments have taxing power, he suggested that towns and counties be more involved in the discussion of protecting their shorelines. Meanwhile, reconstructed dunes have “protected millions of dollars of infrastructure along the Delaware coastline.”

The overall system needs some retooling to pay the $5 or $6 million share, which leaves nothing left to replenish bay beaches. (Although important to the state, bays don’t meet the cost-benefit requirements for Corps funding.)

• Waterway management has no dedicated funding source, so the state legislature must approve a budget appropriation for it each year. Many waterways need dredging and maintenance, but Small said the Army Corps only manages the most economically necessary, such as the Nanticoke River and Wilmington harbor.

Currently, a Clean Water Task Force is brainstorming ways to improve maintenance, such as an additional feel on boat licenses or a maritime gas tax.

• Private canals aren’t dredged by DNREC, but property owners can create “tax lagoon” associations to tax themselves and maintain the waterways. It is modeled after the tax ditch concept, one of Delaware’s oldest laws.

• Bacteria and pollution are bogging down state waterways. Southeastern Sussex County is in the red, as 100 percent of stream segments are impaired with excess nutrients.

• Rehoboth Beach’s ocean outfall was approved for a loan, but many permits are still required for the actual pipe and pump station designs. The City of Rehoboth Beach is required to eliminate the discharge of treated effluent from the Rehoboth Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal.

“That was the best option for the inland bays. Any other option,” he said, would have released effluent into the groundwater, eventually seeping into bays.

Treated water is near-drinking-quality, Small said. Pipes will carry the water 6,000 feet offshore.

Small recalled when wastewater was treated within Delaware Seashore State Park: “We used to discharge [treated effluent] on an outgoing tide.”

“You’ll all have been living with one for more than 30 years,” he said of the Bethany Beach outfall, which connects to the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility.

• Real estate agents weren’t fond of an older rule requiring septic systems to be tested when a home is transferred, but Small said, “I think it was a good call. We found that 60 percent of [septics] either needed to be replaced or repaired.”

To be honest, he said, the State didn’t have the staff to test 90,000 septic systems, so it was put on the real estate community.

• Allen-Harim has decided not to use Millsboro’s former Vlasic/Pinnacle factory for processing chickens, which would have produced a lot of wastewater, although they may choose to process something else there. They never got to the point of presenting DNREC with plans for a new wastewater treatment facility there, although Small speculated that it would have been challenging for them to meet DelDOT’s permitting requirements.

Meanwhile, companies such as Dogfish Head Brewery can bring wastewater to treatment facilities like that because it provides the bacteria a continued food source. Dogfish has a permit to take waste to other facilities, but “it still doesn’t change the requirements Allen-Harim has to meet,” Small said.

Although Ron Wuslich said the nearby Indian River Bay still isn’t meeting TMDL requirements, Small said the factory is a small contributor.

• The Assawoman Canal Trail has proven to be popular. Currently, DNREC and DelDOT are brainstorming how to run the trail southward under Route 26.

“It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the trails,” especially with adjacent residents who were leery of neighboring trails. “They were very concerned about creating access to their community,” but now Small sees real estate advertisements touting the nearby trails. “What was perceived as a liability is now an economic benefit.”

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry saw a 30 percent increase in bicycle traffic when it began advertising proximity to the Rehoboth bike trails.

• “No Child Left Inside” is a movement encouraging children to spend time outdoors. “We are very concerned” that the average Delaware child spends 44 hours weekly in front of electronic screens (not including school hours), Small said. “We’re just worried that if folks don’t get to enjoy nature early, they won’t appreciate it later.”

• Composting is encouraged on a small scale, but the bacteria need a constant and balanced diet to prevent bad odors. A Wilmington industrial compost center was too big for its own good, finally closing when the material and odors started backing up.

“I think dealing with our organic waste is kind of the last frontier,” Small said.

• DNREC employment is a concern, as 50 percent of staff are eligible for retirement, due to hours or age. The agency must prep some of those scientists for management positions, he said

People can learn more about DNREC’s projects and divisions at www.dnrec.delaware.gov or via the agency’s presences on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.