“What you’ll see tonight is not more of the same old business, because that won’t get the job done. This is some pretty drastic stuff we’re going to talk about tonight, and that’s what it’s going to take to restore the water quality of the Inland Bays.”
Kevin Donnelly, of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), thusly introduced speakers at a recent workshop on the state’s ambitious Pollution Control Strategy (PCS).
More than 60 residents filtered into the Roxana Fire Hall on Feb. 3 to hear the details.
The goal is nutrient reduction.
According to state agencies, nitrogen and phosphorus levels increasingly endanger the Inland Bays. If left unchecked, the high nutrient levels could lead to nuisance macroalgae (sea lettuce), toxic algal blooms and fish kills.
The PCS will pave the way for the attainment of the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). The state aims to reduce nitrogen loading by 40 to 85 percent and phosphorus loading by 40 to 65 percent.
That means reducing nitrogen loading by 4,000 pounds per day and phosphorus loading by 135 pounds per day, over then next 10 years.
DNREC estimated costs at $24 million per year, most of that (63 percent) to be spent improving wastewater systems (moving homes from septic to central sewer, for instance).
Improved stormwater management and agricultural practices would take up the rest of the budget, at 23 percent and 13 percent, respectively.
“There’s been state-sponsored activity in the Inland Bays, caused by Gov. Mike Castle — citizen’s groups and studies — since the late 1980s, if not earlier,” Donnelly pointed out. “We still have significant water quality issues.”
Donnelly introduced colleague John Schneider for more details.
Schneider touched on habitat loss, but focused on nitrogen and phosphorus.
He described the stink of rotting sea lettuce – “I’ve been in it up to my chest, and it’s nasty,” he said.
Presently, DNREC scoops the macroalgae into a harvester for disposal. “The harvester is a Band-aid, and we readily admit that — it’s not a solution,” Schneider noted.
Regarding the algae blooms, he said certain single-celled animals loved the high nitrogen and phosphorus conditions — including phisteria.
“This can produce fish kills – it can also produce a toxin that can be harmful to people using the water,” Schneider pointed out. “It can also aerosolize — it can actually come out into the air with wave and wind action and cause respiratory problems.”
He said there were a number of harmful algae species that could do that.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorus also led to low dissolved oxygen, and Schneider ran up a slide depicting a massive fish kill near Rehoboth.
According to Donnelly, the loss of the “riparian zone” (riparian refers to the banks of a stream or river) had exacerbated runoff pollution.
“We’ve eliminated a lot of that,” he said. “We farm right up to the edge of the stream, we build buildings right up to the edge of the stream — everybody wants to be near the water.”
Part of the new regulations includes a 100-foot buffer zone around all wetlands, state or federal.
However, according to Schneider, runoff is actually less of a problem than dissolved nutrients entering the groundwater.
He said 80 percent of the fresh water in the Inland Bays watershed started out as groundwater, which might reflect unseen pollution.
DNREC’s Jennifer Volk took the stage to report on progress to date and some of the regulations people could expect.
Volk said the department had gone a long way toward eliminating the point sources (wastewater outfalls, industrial) — most of the remaining pollution was coming from residential septic and farms.
Holding tanks will need to be pumped out regularly, septic tanks every three years at the outside.
“Sussex County has done an excellent job of taking sewer out of the ground and putting it into districts,” Volk said. She anticipated the PCS would further encourage that effort.
The state will require a nutrient management budget any time a new parcel is developed or improved. All new or replacement wastewater disposal systems must be designed to higher performance standards, as specified by the PCS.
Volk praised the agricultural community – many farmers have submitted their nutrient management plans (NMPs) ahead of the deadline, she said.
Once the regulations go into place, all farms larger than 10 acres will need one.
She said programs like manure storage and relocation, and the addition of phytase to feed (reduces phosphorus in manure) were producing great results.
A panel of 15 officials from DNREC, the Center for the Inland Bays (CIB), the Office of State Planning and Coordination (OSPC) answered questions after the presentation.
In the main, the residents in attendance seemed to accept the necessity for the regulations, but Rich Collins of the Positive Growth Alliance warned state officials that the PCS might be overly ambitious.
“These buffers will impact thousands of acres of land,” Collins stated.
While Collins recognized the gathered officials as hard working and sincere, he reminded them that land has a value, and has to be paid for.
He also suggested some of the new septic technologies might be premature, and price people out of the market.
Carrie Bennett of the Sierra Club said she felt the PCS should have been introduced 10 years ago.
“These regulations are sorely needed, and I feel this is something that’s time has come,” she said. “The health of the bays is what protects all of our livelihoods.”