2022 Water Resources Element Update


History of the WRE and Guidance

During the 2006 legislative session, House Bill 1141 was codified into law requiring that a WRE be included in local land use plans. The purpose of the WRE is to identify: (1) “drinking water and other water resources that will be adequate for the needs of existing and future development proposed in the land use element of the plan; and, (2) suitable receiving waters and land areas to meet stormwater (SW) management and wastewater treatment and disposal needs of existing and future development proposed in the land use element of the plan” (Land Use Article §1-410 and §3-106). MDE’s role is to “review the water resources element to determine whether the proposed plan is consistent with the programs and goals of [MDE] reflected in the general water resources program required under § 5–203 of the Environment Article”. In 2007, Maryland issued its first WRE Models and Guidelines​ to assist local governments with planning and zoning authority in developing their WREs. 

New Challenges

Since the issuance of the original guidance in 2007, there have been substantial changes to Maryland’s water resource and environmental management programs. Specifically, Chesapeake Bay restoration has changed from a voluntary program guided by the Tributary Strategies framework to a regulatory program under the authority of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and guided by the 2010 TMDL and related implementation plans. Maryland developed a 2019 Phase III Watershed Implementation Plan that charts a course to achieve Chesapeake Bay nutrient and sediment Water Quality Standards (WQSs) by 2025. Additionally in 2015, the Maryland Commission on Climate Change was codified into law (Environment Article §2-1301 through 1306), requiring state agencies to review their “planning, regulatory, and fiscal programs to identify and recommend actions to more fully integrate the consideration of Maryland’s greenhouse gas reduction goal and the impacts of climate change.” This includes explicit consideration of sea level rise, storm surges and flooding, increased temperature and precipitation, and extreme weather. The legislation also calls on state agencies to assist “local governments in supporting community-scale climate vulnerability assessments and the development and integration of specific strategies into local plans and ordinances.” These statutory and regulatory changes, as well as additional state legislation mandating nuisance flood plans for coastal jurisdictions, siting and design guidelines for certain state-funded buildings, and a statewide plan to adapt to saltwater intrusion and salinization, all have a direct impact on water resource management and land development programs and policies. 

In 2020, MDE, DNR and Planning convened a team to consider these updates to Maryland’s water resources programs, and recommend any needed updates to the 2007 WRE guidelines. The agencies agreed that ongoing climate change impacts to water quantity and quality require integrating climate change considerations into the WRE and related local planning and zoning decisions to ensure consistency with Maryland’s water resources programs. Doing so will ensure that drinking water, wastewater and stormwater management (SWM) programs can support planned growth and development, while also ensuring public health and safety protections from known or reasonably foreseeable climate hazards.

Maryland’s Water Resources​

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed covers almost the entire land area of Maryland, all of Washington, D.C., and portions of Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia. It is Maryland’s largest water resource and central to the state's economy, identity and culture; its health is also directly tied to land management practices throughout the watershed. While the State of Maryland may not be the largest land area in the group of Bay watershed states, Maryland does have significant shoreline and thus a direct impact on water quality. Maryland also has land areas that drain to the Coastal Bays on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as well as economically and recreationally important areas like Ocean City that drain directly to the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly important economically and recreationally is Deep Creek Lake, and the streams and rivers in western Garrett County, like the Youghiogheny River, which flow outside of Maryland into the Ohio River basin.

While many Marylanders rely on surface water from reservoirs and rivers that are managed through large utilities and interjurisdictional river commissions, others rely upon groundwater aquifers for their drinking water. All share a common feature: there are limits on how much water each can safely yield. The geological makeup of Maryland’s landscape can be divided into two very different regions ​(Coastal Plain and Fractured Rock) that provide different quantities of source water from each underground resource. Appropriate consideration of these differences is critical for evaluating when there is an unsustainable demand on water supplies (possibly causing them to run dry). It is also important for protecting drinking water sources and when contamination from outside sources may have affected water quality. These two factors of quantity and quality are key considerations that planned development must calculate and account for.

Water resource control, such as flood hazard mitigation, and recognition of other water resource hazards, including rising water tables and saltwater intrusion, are very important for providing public safety and protecting critical infrastructure, and are key considerations when new or modified local land use plans are proposed.

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