Maryland’s Nitrogen-Reducing Septic Upgrade Program a Success

The Maryland Department of the Environment today announced that nearly 1,300 septic systems in the State have been upgraded to reduce nitrogen pollution through the Bay Restoration Fund since the first upgrade was completed in June 2007; 384 of those upgrades have been completed in the last 2 months. Maryland’s Bay Restoration Fund funds wastewater treatment plant upgrades, cover crops, and septic upgrades to significantly reduce nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland waterways. From April though June of 2009, MDE received over 1,200 applications for the program, a ten-fold increase over the same period last year.

Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Shari T. Wilson said: “This is a credit to Maryland residents, who want to protect our drinking water, the Chesapeake Bay, and our local rivers and streams, that septic upgrades have become so popular, so quickly. As a result, nitrogen loads will be reduced by 7,800 pounds of nitrogen each year through the nearly 1,300 septic systems upgraded to date. Septic system upgrades are a key part of reaching Maryland’s new, ambitious 2-year Chesapeake Bay milestones that more than double our State’s efforts to reduce nitrogen and clean up the Bay.”

The average septic system delivers about 30 lbs. of nitrogen per year to the groundwater. Of the estimated 420,000 septic systems in Maryland, 52,000 septic systems are in the Critical Area (within 1000 feet of tidal waters of the State); approximately 80 percent of the nitrogen from a septic system in the Critical Area will reach surface waters. An upgraded, enhanced nutrient removal septic system cuts a system’s nitrogen load in half.

Due to strong interest in the septic upgrade program, for upgrades in the 10 Maryland counties that do not operate their own programs, new applications are temporarily being placed on a waiting list. This does not affect those 13 counties who operate their own upgrade programs. For those counties, applicants should contact their county directly for funding availability.

In addition, to maximize the efficient use of all Bay Restoration Funds, MDE is developing new grant criteria to ensure that available funding for septic system upgrades is targeted toward homeowners with the highest needs and the highest priority systems, particularly failing systems in the Critical Area and other parts of the State. These new criteria are expected to be in place by October 1, 2008.

Ms. Wilson continued: “MDE will contact applicants for this program as funds become available, and we continue to encourage Marylanders to upgrade their septic systems to protect our waterways, the Bay, and public health. Applicants for funding who have failing systems should be sure to let MDE or their county know, because those systems have the highest priority.”

MDE’s septic upgrade program annually receives an estimated $8 million in funding, enough to cover about 600-700 septic upgrades per year. An average septic system upgrade, plus 5 years of maintenance, costs approximately $10,000-$13,000. Since 2006, the State has awarded approximately $19 million to homeowners and counties for upgrading septic systems.

Through the Bay Restoration Fund, a $30 annual fee is collected from each home served by an onsite septic system. The total estimated program income is $12 million per year. Sixty percent of these funds are used for septic system upgrades and 40 percent are used for cover crops. For State fiscal year 2010, the Legislature voted to change the allocated funding percentages for one year, so that the septic program will receive 22.4 percent and cover crops will receive 77.6 percent of funds for FY10.

In 2008, approximately 4,000 new and replacement systems were installed in Maryland, resulting in an increase of 12,000 pounds per year of nitrogen discharge reaching Chesapeake Bay. This annual growth is the equivalent of an additional major sewage treatment plant every year (i.e. 500,000 gallons per day sewage treatment plant) with no nutrient removal technology.