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Overall, A Strong Session for the Bay

When the choppy waters calmed, Chesapeake Bay advocates emerged from this General Assembly with some solid achievements.

It was too bad that members got cold feet in the waning hours over legislation that would have put Maryland at the forefront of state efforts to prepare for climate change.

And why the Assembly agreed to backsliding legislation that delays a ban passed a year ago on phosphates in dishwashing detergents eludes us. Delaying the ban will allow and extra 7.5 tons of phosphorus into our waterways. Aren’t nitrogen and phosphorus choking Chesapeake Bay with algae blooms and dead zones?

But why cry over a few spilled nutrients?

We’ll all be using less energy and saving money on electricity bills now that the Assembly okayed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s goal to reduce our per-capita electricity usage by 15 percent by 2015, saving us some $4.1 billion by 2020. By that time, one-fifth of our energy usage will have to be generated by renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.

We’re quite pleased that the state’s Critical Area Law was given its first overhaul in 24 years, strengthening provisions to protect the buffer area along the Bay and its tributaries — and closing the loopholes clever, experienced users have found in the old law.

Reducing the proposed 300-foot setback for construction on rural shoreline to 200 feet was unwise given the destructive mischief that can occur in that 100 feet. But significantly, the bill gave the Critical Area Commission more authority over the sort of county decisions that have blighted many of our shorelines and polluted our waters with unwise development.

The goal is that this legislation will limit the many variances allowing building near the waterfront and will deter violations by yanking the licenses of contractors who knowingly break the law along shorelines.

Thanks to another new law, shoreline owners now must cultivate living or soft shorelines — not riprap or bulkhead — along their waterfront property, unless they can demonstrate massive erosion problems.

We were pleased, too, with the decision to provide half — though we wish it were more — of the $50 million Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund established in the November special session. And we think that energy legislation that allows the sale of carbon allowances to power plants on a regional basis is a strong first step toward dealing with pollution that knows no bounds.

On the negative, lawmakers must have thought they were in Montana rather than Maryland when they rejected climate change legislation to reduce global warming emissions. With more shoreline than California, Maryland is among the states most susceptible to the rising waters sure to occur as a result of climate change.

We also part company with those who regard as progress an Assembly-approved change allowing local governments to tap into the flush tax to enable multiple septic system owners to set up a community system. Rather than slowing nutrient runoff from a few septic systems, they could promote unwise development in rural areas and in so doing compound nitrogen runoff.

But at least, under the new Critical Area Law, it would be tougher to build in rural areas.

In other words, after this General Assembly, the glass is at least half full.

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