Maryland’s onsite wastewater professionals association grapples with stiffer regulations aimed at cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.


A 2012 law in Maryland has changed the entire landscape of the onsite wastewater industry in the state. The number of new septic systems will be cut in half and those that are installed must use the best available technology. There are strict requirements for operating and maintaining onsite systems and every person working on them will have to be certified by both the state and the system component manufacturer.

It has been a busy year for the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association. The Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012 is just the latest effort in the 30-year fight to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the country covering 4,480 square miles through Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Nobody has been immune from the efforts to reduce nutrients and pollution getting into the water; the onsite industry, agriculture, stormwater and municipal wastewater have all been affected. The state’s goal is to eliminate all new nitrogen sources from onsite systems and limit new systems to only one of four zoning “tiers” in the state. 

“The Chesapeake Bay has been severely degraded,” says Dave Duree, president of MOWPA and the owner of Advance Systems in Taneytown, Md. “Nitrogen has fed the algae at the surface and that has cut off the sunlight from the plants below. So we’re losing our crabs, oysters, clams and the habitat for all the creatures in the bay. The new laws and regulations virtually eliminate all future nitrogen from onsite systems from entering the bay. Stormwater is likely the next big source to be addressed.”

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Duree talked with Onsite Installer about the Maryland experience.

Installer: There has been a lot of change in Maryland in the last year. What role has MOWPA played?

Duree: MOWPA has provided the industry point of view to the legislature and other parties participating in the process. As a nonprofit organization, we do not lobby. We are a resource to the Maryland Department of Environment, homebuilders associations, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We’re also providing forums and educational resources to help the industry meet the requirements of the new regulations, which includes installers and those manufacturing, operating and maintaining the systems.

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It is a big responsibility. MOWPA is working with MDE to train professionals in appropriate O&M practices based on the 270-page manual from the Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment. In our first three two-day classes in 2013, we had about 65 graduates. There were 25 registered for our March class; we were expecting about 20. So we can’t project the total number of graduates this year. We don’t know how many more classes we’ll do, but we’re prepared to meet the demand.

Installer: How has the onsite industry responded to the changes?

Duree: There are those who are resigned to the inevitable and adjusting, and others who are frustrated and angry because the practices they are accustomed to will be radically altered. MOWPA will assist in adjusting to the changes. That is the most realistic and effective way to make a living in our business.

Related: Maryland law will reduce number of new septic systems

Installer: What is the impact of the regulations restricting the use of onsite systems?

Duree: It will result in a 50 percent reduction in the number of new systems each year; from around 10,000 a year to about 5,000 statewide. The installation side will clearly be smaller, but each installation will be a bigger job because of the requirement for best available technology. However, there will be more work in operating and maintenance because each system is required to be maintained in perpetuity, including regular pumping. MOWPA is training pumpers in the proper methods for pumping those complicated systems. Some have media filters so if you put the hose in the wrong place you can damage the media.

Installer: What is next in the regulatory pipeline?

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Duree: The legislation requires the establishment of an offset program for any residual nitrogen. Most of the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are behind on meeting their TMDL goals. The challenge is that we have to continue to grow, which adds nutrients, while at the same time reducing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Those are conflicting responsibilities. An offset program for wastewater systems, stormwater and agriculture is a way to cancel nutrients from new development by doing something to reduce the equivalent amount somewhere else, such as tree planting. There is a task force working on that now and MOWPA is continuing to provide them with information.

Installer: It sounds like onsite professionals in Maryland have a lot to learn.

Duree: Yes, but that’s also true for the regulatory side and vendors. Regulators also need to be knowledgeable of the proper installation process. When finished with our certification course, the service providers will then have to be certified with each vendor to operate and maintain their products. The vendors have to be certified to provide what the state wants in operation, maintenance and reporting responsibilities.

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MOWPA is also working with NOWRA [National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association] on a design course for onsite systems that includes the new technologies. It will be available for regulators, engineering companies or any other design practitioners. That initiative has been going on for a year and we’re starting to close in on a course that will likely serve as a model to offer other states.

Installer: Is it as daunting as it sounds?

Duree: Yes. However, the program is in place and changes are occurring. There have been proposals by rural legislators to roll back some of the provisions of the original legislation. We’ll wait and see if any or how much change comes out of that. So we are implementing while we continue to develop the program, which is probably the only way it can be done because it’s so complex.

Installer: Is Maryland a good example of what others might see in the future or does the Chesapeake Bay make you different?

Duree: It’s certainly a unique and complicated watershed that has eluded efforts to protect it thus far. We are hearing reports that other states are looking at what we’re doing. It’s like dominoes, nothing stands alone. I believe Maryland is probably one of the more aggressive states as a result of last year’s legislation. I’m hearing from other states that they may have to do what we’re doing in one form or another depending on their unique geology, groundwater and surface water. I think it will make us look at more innovative solutions that will make things less onerous and will hopefully reduce costs.

Installer: Do you have some examples?

Duree: I heard one manufacturer say that if they know there is a standard they have to achieve, they’ll develop the product. The market drives product development. Once that product is developed, competition and volume help bring down the price; I remember when little handheld calculators were $100, now they’re giveaways.

Installer: It sounds like it’s been a lot of work.

Duree: We’re in the eye of the storm. I believe that everyone involved is doing their best to cope with a process that will bring about the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. We all love it around here. I remember when I first came to Maryland and I was out there complaining about the grasses getting in my rudder or propeller. Now I wish we had more of it. The algae on the Bay is killing off the grasses and destroying habitat. You don’t see the birds that you used to see. It’s a different place now.

We want to see it flourish. Sometimes, it’s pretty painful to deal with all the changes; painful but necessary.


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