SALISBURY — The first water quality improvement milestone evaluation for Wicomico County has come in from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the review is highly positive.
“We’re very proud of the report as it came in,” said Keith Hall, director of Transportation and Long Range Planning for Wicomico. “Looking back at this effort over the last four years the County Executive [Rick Pollitt] has made a strong commitment to improving water quality but also the preservation of our valuable natural resources.”
The MDE evaluation graded the county in areas such as internal and external cooperation, planning and resource enhancements. All of the categories were tied into the efforts Wicomico is making to protect local waterways and prevent runoff and the influx of pollutants. Across the majority of categories the county was rated as scoring “high” by MDE.
Minor areas remain where the county could improve, such as with public engagement, where the evaluation gave a medium rating, along with a few others.
“The vounty received ‘High’ ratings for most the categories of the 2012-2013 Milestones evaluation, …” noted the report from MDE. “Progress on building stormwater management capacity via initial steps toward a system of fees is promising. Progress on modest commitments for the septic system sector is positive; however, more attention to this sector should be reflected in future milestone commitments. Upgrades are underway in the wastewater sector.”
The results of the evaluation generated excitement in Wicomico where officials see this as evidence that their work is paying off. Pollitt announced this week that he hopes the progress made by the county will be used as an example for others who are interested in protecting local waterways, tributaries and the Chesapeake Bay.
“I’m proud to see that Wicomico’s can-do commitment to improved water quality is being noticed,” he said. “Hopefully, our leadership will encourage others to tackle their own obligations in support of a clean and healthy environment. We can make this count.”
Officials promised that the good marks won’t cause anyone to slack off. A number of water quality improvement projects are underway or planned for the next few months with more in the pipeline. There are eight different projects scheduled for the next six months. Those will take place on publically owned land that is highly visible, which Hall noted is important for educating the public about the efforts being taken.
The projects include bioretention, bioswales and dry pond conversions and represent a roughly $945,000 investment, helped along by a $545,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Already Wicomico has implemented a watershed management plan for the Wicomico River. Also being looked at are stormwater utilities. The city of Salisbury is considering the pros and cons of such a utility as is the county, though the less developed Wicomico doesn’t have that project at the top of the list.
“It’s not high on our radar. We’re looking at other things, for example, creating an urban tree canopy program,” said Hall, “identifying these areas in the county where we can go in the county where we can go in and plant more trees to help absorb these nutrients.”
It’s crucial to stop runoff before it enters the water since extracting pollutants is much, much more difficult than preventing them. A proactive rather than reactive approach is important, said Hall, as the impact from nutrients entering the water is dire. One big issue with runoff is the overgrowth of algae which can cause trouble to the ecosystem and healthy aquatic life populations as well as affecting local waterways’ recreational uses.
While the MDE evaluation praised Wicomico, Hall asserted that everything is a team effort and the county’s partners in the community and beyond are vital to being able to meet milestones. One of the best things that Pollitt did when the process started was create a qualified team to take point on water quality improvement, according to Hall.
“So I think when you start looking at some of the first steps that were taken the main thing was making sure that we had the right people at the table in coming up with a dedicated approach that we could proceed with,” Hall said.
Besides the lead team the county works with local municipalities, the state and federal government, community non-profits and private organizations, among others. Hall believes that all deserve credit for the results of the evaluation.
Funding for water quality improvement continues to be a priority.
“The County Executive’s stance is that we will focus efforts on what can be achieved to improve our local waterways and that is why his budget includes funds for continued investment in environmental projects,” said Tamara Lee-Brooks, public information officer for Wicomico.
Lee-Brooks added that Pollitt appropriated $200,000 in funding for water projects in both FY14 and FY15. This was the first MDE evaluation on milestones with a new evaluation expected every two years.