Long-awaited pollution control strategy unveiled

The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Division of Water Resources held a public information meeting on their proposed Inland Bays Pollution Control Strategy, PCS, Tuesday, May 20, at the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center.

The process to come up with the Pollution Control Strategy has been a long one — going on since 1998. The Tributary Action Team, made up of representatives from local government, businesses, environmentalists, farmers and residents, gathered information during seven public forums and had the goal of reducing the area’s nutrient loading in order to achieve better water quality for the Inland Bays and their tributaries.

According to DNREC, many plans have been made to correct some of the problems seen in the Inland Bays, such as decaying seaweed, harmful algal blooms and fish kills, but few carried weight as much as Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulations. These were established for the Indian River, Indian River Bay and Rehoboth Bay in December of 1998 and for Little Assawoman Bay in January 2005.

“These TMDLs called for the systematic elimination of all point sources of nutrient loading to those water bodies, along with a 40 to 65 percent reduction in nonpoint phosphorus loading and a 40 to 85 percent reduction in nitrogen loading. The TMDL also calls for a 20 percent reduction in atmospheric deposition of nitrogen through implementation of the Clean Air Act,” the newly published strategy states.

After two initial workshops, DNREC met with interested groups, including The Delaware Farm Bureau, the Delaware Association of Realtors, the Positive Growth Alliance and the Delaware Homebuilders, who had lobbied to the General Assembly to intervene. After talking and meeting with these groups for a year, they revised the strategy to incorporate their concerns, and more public workshops were given.

“During these workshops, members of the scientific community raised substantive concerns relating to the buffer portion of the regulation. In the spring of 2007, DNREC held public hearings on a proposed regulation that reserved the buffer provisions in anticipation of a county-wide buffer regulation later that year. This approach, however, was not well received,” the new strategy acknowledged.

DNREC tried to appease both the developers and the environment by investigating developer alternatives without affecting water quality, and the Pollution Control Strategy has been revised, but it still is mostly based on recommendations by the Tributary Action Team for the Inland Bays.

DNREC Secretary John Hughes introduced new PCS at Tuesday’s meeting by saying that it has been a long, laborious nine years of work. He read from a letter from the Attorney General of Delaware, stating that DNREC has the authority to establish buffers.

“We will litigate if we have to,” said Hughes. “We are willing to go to the General Assembly. The deal is, we’re moving forward. There will be opportunity for tinkering, but not for major change.”

Hughes, a resident and former mayor of Rehoboth Beach, went on to say that Sussex Countians are close to destroying the very resources that brought people here in the first place, and that county growth and environmental preservation can exist side by side. “The developers can do all that we ask and still make money,” said Hughes.

New plan aims to reduce many sources of pollution

Jennifer Volk of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Division of Water Resources presented the PCS and its major points on Tuesday. She stated that some progress has already been made including the elimination of 13,000 septic systems, a major source of pollution in the Inland Bays and their tributaries.

Also, since 1990, she said, nine facilities have eliminated their surface discharge, including Frankford Elementary School, Mountaire Inc. and Pinnacle Foods (formerly known as Vlasic). The towns of Lewes, Millsboro and Rehoboth beach have made substantial improvements as well, she said.

Volk talked about some of the important parts of the PCS, such as point sources and non-point sources. Point sources include municipal and industrial wastewater treatment plants that continuously discharge into the waters of the Inland Bays and tributaries. The non-point sources, she stated, are more challenging to remedy because discharge is intermittent and difficult to track. Non-point sources include everything from agriculture, urban land use, onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems to stormwater and sediments.

The PCS outlines 19 regulatory and 28 voluntary actions to combat these sources of inland bay pollution.

Highlights include:

• Buffer zones being established for new major subdivisions, 100 feet landward from the ordinary high water line of primary water features and 60 feet landward from ordinary high water marks if they are secondary water features with no landowner extending into lot lines;

• Full compliance with the Delaware Nutrient Management Act for agricultural users; all agricultural acres should have a nutrient management plan; sediment and stormwater controls;

• Regulation of onsite wastewater treatment and disposal systems — permanent holding tanks will not be permitted within the watershed; all properties sold will have septic systems pumped out prior to completion of sale, or the owner can provide documentation if pumping occurred within previous 36 months; all new and replacement systems must be designed to achieve performance as specified in the PCS regulations; with hardship assistance provided for those that might need it.

Effective dates of the regulations vary from immediately up to 180 days, with all new and replacement septic systems (less than or equal to 2,500 gallon per day) being required to comply by Jan. 1, 2015.

Public full of praise, concern over enforcement

After the brief synopsis of many of the main points in the regulations, Tuesday’s meeting was opened up for questions to a panel of DNREC experts.

Many members of the public present at the meeting commended DNREC for the work that has been done to protect the inland bays and, thereby, water quality and the recreation and tourism industries.

Much of the dissention expressed at the May 20 meeting involved questions about whether DNREC had the authority to enforce the regulations and the means by which they would do it. Some specific questions were also raised about mapping and deciphering the secondary water sources.

Rich Collins asked specifically about whether there was a conflict with state law that doesn’t allow regulation of non-tidal areas.

DNREC officials replied, “We all agree with Secretary Hughes — that we do have the right.” Collins said he was also was of the opinion that costs were understated and that what he perceived as a one-size-fits-all approach to the regulations did not make sense.

A second question was posed about the secondary waterways and the need for the regulations concerning them to make sense.

“Those disconnected, scattered forest ditches, a lot of them are small and the development perspective is ‘get rid of them,’” said Ed Lenay, an environmental consultant from Rehoboth Beach.

“I want to be in a positive position to help my clients comply, but I need the regulations to make sense,” Lenay said. “Those pieces of yellow swales or ditches are not waterways, streams, or even ditches,” he added, referencing the associated maps involved in the PCS. “Nobody regulates them, and if they are not regulated, I fail to see how these ‘squiggles’ are legitimate under this plan.”

DNREC officials answered that many are now ditched and the primary concern was protecting forested areas.

Kathy Bunting-Howarth, acting director of DNREC’s Division of Water Resources, answered a question about developers clear-cutting trees by saying that, while there was no regulation saying they could not cut down every tree to make way for a development, they could reduce their buffer width if 30 percent of their site was kept forested.

Joan Deaver of Citizens for Better Sussex commended the department for all its hard work.

“What we need is a better environment. We have serious environmental problems with air, land and water. Let’s get this show on the road,” she said, to a round of applause.

Judson Bennett of the Coastal Conservative Network commended the department as well, but he also asked about enforcement issues.

“In Sussex County, or the state of Delaware, as far as I’m concerned, has no or little enforcement,” said Bennett. “How are you going to enforce [these regulations]? How many of your current staff now and how many will you need in the future to enforce them?”

John Schneider of DNREC’s Division of Water Resources said they could handle the staff development and that they would have to help each other and develop new relationships with the Environmental Protection Office.

“We’ll find out soon enough if we have the staff to do it,” said Schneider.

Timetable: ‘Not another year’

Others asked whether DNREC could promulgate the regulations immediately, as the General Assembly is now in session, and as to the timeline for implementation.

Bunting-Howarth said, “We promised to have the public hearing while the session was open, so we’d have ample time to respond to comments.”

Schneider added, “We can’t image a fatal flaw, but we are ready to go. We are not going to dispense with nine years of work.”

“So, not another year?” came from the audience.

“No, not another year,” answered Schneider.

Sandy Spence of Lewes asked about education for the general public or programs for home owner associations that aren’t actually in the watershed but whose actions most likely indirectly affected the Inland Bays’ water quality, such as using fertilizer for on lawns, etc.

Scheider answered, “We have all kinds of folks who will come out and talk to you — nothing formal. Call us and we’ll help.”

Buzz Henifin, co-chairman of Fenwick Island’s Environmental Committee, added that in Fenwick Island that particular dialogue was already happening.

“In Fenwick Island, we have an Environmental Committee and there’s so much information, so many educational pamphlets. Just get educated and do it!”

DNREC officials said Tuesday that full implementation of the PCS will have a cost of at least $25 million per year “excluding additional funding that will be needed for resultant administrative and programmatic cost increases.” They have a goal to renew the strategy in 10 years, to assure progress toward superior water quality standards.

The proposed PCS is available for public review online at www.dnrec.delaware.gov (http://www.dnrec.state.de.us/water2000/Sections/Watershed/ws/ib_pcs.htm) or by contacting John Scheider, Division of Water Resources, Water Assessment Section at (302) 739-9939 or john.scheider@state.de.us.

The public comment period starts June 1, 2008, and lasts until June 30, 2008, at 4:30 p.m. A public hearing on the long-awaited strategy will be held Monday, June 23, 2008, at the Georgetown CHEER Center, 20520 Sand Hill Road, Georgetown.