Guarding local swimmers  [Editorial]

The Maryland and Delaware Atlantic Ocean beach resorts got a bit of good news to kick off the summer season this past week. The latest survey by the National Resources Defense Council rates both states as having some of the cleanest beach water in the country.

Based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards for swimmer safety (and the prevalence of disease-causing bacteria or viruses), Maryland had the fourth safest coastal beaches in the country. Delaware was the best overall.

But the difference between the two states was relatively small. In Delaware, about 3 percent of water samples exceeded EPA standards, and in Maryland, it was 4 percent last year. Either looks good compared to the national average of 10 percent. In states like Louisiana and Mississippi, the numbers run closer to 20 percent.

And here's another fact from the NRDC report that the local tourism bureau may want to advertise: The two states earned "superstar" ratings for beaches where at least 98 percent of water samples have met federal standards in recent years. They include Maryland's Assateague State Park (where the beach hasn't failed a single test since 2009) and Dewey Beach in Delaware.

Considering the consequences of failing these tests — illnesses such as stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis can result from swimming in polluted water — this is no small achievement. The EPA isn't certain how many Americans get sick each year from contact with bacteria and other pathogens at the beach, but in the Los Angeles area alone, the estimate is as many as 1.4 million annually.

So how can Maryland make certain that its beaches — and the billions of dollars of investment in Ocean City — are protected in the future? From Maine to California, clean water advocates say there are several important strategies: preserve wetlands that naturally filter water, clean up sewage and, most critical of all, reduce polluted stormwater runoff.

That's right, the national prescription for cleaner beaches is, in the NRDC's words, to "clean up polluted runoff." Whether it's the overflow from a septic tank, pet droppings on the street, fertilizer from the backyard or a host of other pollutants that end up flowing into the ocean after a heavy rain, runoff has become a growing source of contamination.

That's a particularly important lesson for Maryland. A decade ago, the state approved a "flush tax" to help finance upgrades to sewage treatment plants, and the effort has produced positive results. More recently, the state began requiring 10 local jurisdictions to adopt fees to pay for projects to reduce stormwater pollution and meet federal standards for clean water.

The only difference has been that the flush tax was proposed by a Republican governor and thereby won broad, if sometimes grudging, acceptance across the state. The stormwater fee, approved during a Democratic administration, has been derided as a "rain tax" by virtually every GOP candidate running for state office this year.

That's unfortunate given how critical clean water is to Maryland's economy, and it reveals a distinct lack of perspective. In Baltimore County this year, for example, homeowners are paying $60 for the flush tax but only $39 for the stormwater fee. Yet that modest fee will help pay for millions of dollars in projects to protect local rivers and streams.

Before November, voters will need to hear from candidates who oppose the fee exactly how they'd foot the bill to reduce polluted runoff. Worcester County, home to Ocean City, isn't one of the counties with a state-mandated stormwater remediation fee, but it ought to be investing in the same kinds of remedies, nonetheless. That Assateague Island, with its minimal development, is the cleanest beach in the state is no coincidence; the pollution that comes from runoff is a serious threat not only to human health but to the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's economy.


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