What happens on the land affects the water. Most of us know this, yet we fail to give it much consideration when adopting land use regulations or approving land development plans, actions that can have a marked impact on local waters and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
During my tenure as a council member and then mayor of Takoma Park, MD, I participated in many land use discussions. Local elected officials regularly consider the adoption of zoning regulations, comprehensive plan updates, and subdivision and land development ordinances.
The implications of these plans and regulations on our community’s natural resources are not always fully understood. For example, when adopting a subdivision ordinance, officials rarely consider how that ordinance would affect things like stormwater runoff or the temperature of the streams flowing through our community. Many times, officials don’t consider the fish that live in the stream or the insects that help keep the water clean. We may not fully understand the cumulative impacts of development on our community’s risk for flooding.
For a variety of reasons, including news of tragedies like the 2016 Ellicott City flood that claimed two lives and destroyed the city’s historic downtown, that’s changing.
According to the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, between 1982 and 1997, the 64,000-square-mile watershed in which we live lost more than 750,000 acres of forest land to development — a rate of about 100 acres per day. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the rate of loss has since increased to approximately 105 acres per day. The conversion of forest and farmland to developed lands almost always increases the amount of stormwater that runs off the land into our municipal stormwater systems, creeks and rivers.
The way land is developed can also affect the temperature of creeks and rivers, which can impact the fish living in those waterways. Changes like these can be devastating for a region whose economy is supported by recreational fishing. For example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation reported that the 10th Congressional District in Pennsylvania had more than 100,000 anglers spending $21.3 million on fishing-related purchases. If land use changes were to occur in this or a similar region, it would have a negative impact on the fishing success, purchases and tax revenue in these areas.
These linkages are difficult to make when we’re sitting before the public, making what seems to be a simple decision on a waiver of our land development or stormwater regulations. The reality, though, is that we need to consider these factors when we adopt land use regulations and approve land development plans.
Understanding the condition of the watershed in which you live will help you incorporate this thinking into the decision-making process. Do you know if the streams in your community are clean or polluted? Is your watershed healthy?
Each state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed defines a “healthy watershed” a little differently. The team of people within the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership working to protect healthy watersheds describe them this way: Healthy watersheds store carbon, provide wildlife with clean water and habitat, and are more resilient to the effects of invasive species and climate change. Healthy watersheds also generate ecosystem services and social and economic benefits that are difficult to replicate when restoring impaired watersheds.”
A resource you may find helpful in better understanding how your community can slow the rate of conversion of farmland, forestland and wetlands, is the Conservation Land-Use Policy Toolkit (June 2017), which is available through the Chesapeake Bay Program at chesapeakebay.net.
Once you’re there, I encourage you to check out some of the other resources on the website. If watershed protection and restoration is new to you, you might want to check out the Bay 101 series of short videos on a range of topics from monitoring and modeling the Chesapeake Bay to intersex fish.
In the coming year, the Local Government Advisory Committee to the Chesapeake Executive Council, which sets regional Chesapeake Bay restoration policy, will be working with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to launch a watershed education program for elected officials. This effort, which is being funded in part by the Chesapeake Bay Program, will provide you with access to information and other resources to help you better understand the land-water connection.
So, stay tuned! And the next time you’re faced with a decision about how, or if, the land in your community will be developed, remember that preventing pollution through the protection of healthy waters and low-impact development practices is much more cost-effective than cleaning up a degraded stream or waterway.
Both people and natural resources need healthy watersheds, and we have learned that protection is cheaper and more effective than restoration.
Opinions expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.