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Equitable Solutions Improves Wastewater Treatment & Protects Downstream Property Owners

Drip-irrigation is one of those wastewater treatment technologies which has great promise, yet has performed quite poorly.  But hopefully this is all in the past - at least in Maryland – thanks to Equitable Solutions which triples citizen success in winning environmental disputes while expanding public support for sound management.

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) just released a set of new policies for gaining more of the benefits of drip-irrigation.  These policies are a result of a three-year effort organized by Community & Environmental Defense Services (CEDS), which included a coalition of 16 local, statewide and regional organizations.

The Problem

With drip-irrigation, partially treated wastewater is released into the root zone of grass through perforated pipes buried 18-inches below the surface.  In theory the roots uptake nutrients, then the grass is harvested and used in ways that prevent nitrogen and phosphorus from entering back into the aquatic environment.  The problem is that Maryland’s three drip-irrigation facilities all developed severe problems which caused partially-treated sewage to rise to the soil surface.  At two of the facilities wastewater then flowed into nearby waterways.


Partially Treated Sewage Flowing from a Huntingtown Drip-Irrigation Field

A fourth drip-irrigation facility was proposed for a 40-acre shopping center site which adjoined a community of 161 homes.  Drip-fields were originally proposed within 30-feet of residential yards.  Community residents were quite alarmed by the prospect of sewage-saturated fields within 30 feet of where their children played. 

This case was considered hopeless in June 2008.  The special exception had just been issued along with most other key county approvals and the State discharge permit.  Yet by simultaneously making this project the most controversial drip-irrigation facility in Maryland and by publicly pressing the developer, the County and the State for changes that resolved impacts without killing the project, the 161 families were protected along with the aquatic resources affected by this and the other dozen permitted drip-irrigation facilities.  This strategy is the essence of : Equitable Solutions and a companion approach Smart Legal Strategy, both of which triple citizen success at a fraction of the cost when compared to the conventional strategy of simply seeking to kill a project through the courts.  The approach also mobilizes public support for improving environmental policies in ways rarely seen with the conventional strategy.

As a result of this effort, the State imposed a one-year moratorium on permitting of new drip-irrigation facilities, required the use of moisture-sensing monitors to quickly detect surfacing sewage, and upgraded inspection-compliance measures.

The following changes were won to protect the 161 families from the drip-irrigation system near their community:

Wastewater Holding PondWastewater Holding Pond

Drip-Irrigation Reliability

In theory, drip-irrigation is a good system. Treated wastewater is released into the root zone of grass via a series of perforated pipes placed a foot or two below the land surface. The grass is then periodically harvested along with the nutrients absorbed from the wastewater. The grass is then utilized in ways that minimizes the release of stored nutrients back into the environment.

Unfortunately, the reality of the two Maryland facilities with the longest operational history negates the potential benefits. These two facilities are the drip-irrigation fields at Calvert Gateway and Marley Run, both of which are located in Calvert County.  A recent State inspection also showed the only other operational drip-irrigation facility is failing as well.

In April, 2008, the Apple Greene Civic Association retained Community & Environmental Defense Services (CEDS) to evaluate a proposal to construct a drip-irrigation system within 50 feet of this 161-family Dunkirk community.  Initially CEDS told the community that drip-irrigation looked like pretty good technology from an environmental perspective.  But just to be safe CEDS suggested visiting several existing facilities to verify minimal impact.

The first visit took place in June 2008 and found that both the Gateway and Marley Run drip-irrigation fields were failing.  Every June since 2008 CEDS has examined both drip-irrigation fields annually.  They have found that one or both has been releasing partially treated wastewater to the surface where it then flowed onto adjoining properties and into nearby waterways. These findings have been consistently confirmed by Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) inspectors responding to complaints filed by CEDS. The State NPDES Discharge Permit for both facilities clearly prohibit the release of wastewater into the fields when failures are causing the treated sewage to surface. The Calvert Gateway owner/operator was fined $50,000 for continuing to discharge wastewater to failing drip-irrigation fields after being directed not to by MDE.

In 2005, MDE issued a Complaint & Consent Order to the Calvert County Commissioners for repeated violations of the State discharge permit since treatment opened in 2001.  These violations have continued into 2010. 

A detailed listing of the problems at both existing drip-irrigation facilities can be found in the following two chronologies:

In May, the County Commissioners agreed to a $2.2 million to upgrade the treatment plant.  While these funds should improve one part of the failing treatment plant, drip-irrigation field improvements were not included in the funding plan. 

It is deeply troubling that the 2008 MDE inspection reports concluded that the Marley Run drip-irrigation fields had been failing for more then a year. We are also troubled by the fact that the owner-operator of the Calvert Gateway facility was fined by MDE for continuing to discharge wastewater to failing drip-irrigation fields after directed not to. These facts alone are an ample basis for being very concerned about having future drip-irrigation fields near Calvert County homes.

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Drip-Irrigation & Residential Incompatibility

From the preceding it is clear that a high probability exists that future drip-irrigation fields will also fail in the same manner as the two longest operating facilities in Maryland. At times, partially treated wastewater will rise to the surface of the fields then flow onto adjacent areas and into nearby waters.

At both Calvert Gateway and Marley Run the nearest homes are more then 700 feet from the drip-irrigation fields. County and State law presently allow drip-irrigation fields within 50-feet of a backyard. Having drip-irrigation fields so close raises concerns regarding:

  • neighborhood children wandering into fields near their homes and coming into contact with wastewater saturated soils;

  • mosquitoes and other vectors transmitting disease-causing organisms to those living near drip-irrigation fields;

  • high winds transporting disease-causing organisms in a mist blown from the surface of wastewater-saturated fields into the yards and homes of area residents; and

  • odors, loss of property value, loss of full use of yards and decks, and other negative effects associated with having drip-irrigation fields near homes.

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    MDE Enforcement Key To Making Drip-Irrigation Work

    So why do drip-irrigation fields fail then it takes months before anyone acts?  We believe its because MDE, the agency responsible for overseeing these facilities, is severely understaffed.  In 2003, each MDE inspector was responsible for 1,000 permitted activities.  By 2008, the workload reach 1,500 per MDE inspector.  This allows MDE to inspect smaller facilities, such as those utilizing drip-irrigation, once every two- to five-years.  From the frequency that these facilities seem to fail, it appears an inspection every three months might be what is truly needed.

    In a 2009 letter, we asked MDE what steps would be taken to ensure that State inspectors visit drip-irrigation facilities regularly to ensure pollution is prevented.  We have yet to receive a response from MDE.  A recent report, Failing the Bay: Clean Water Act Enforcement in Maryland Falling Short, showed that MDE is having difficulty enforcing pollution laws in many other places as well. 

    Since MDE's inspection capabilities probably will not improve in the near future, we need another way to protect Calvert County residents from the high probability of failures at drip-irrigation fields.  in the next section we propose a Community Protection Zone as the solution. We should also encourage our State Senators and Delegates to support efforts to expand MDE enforcement capabilities.

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    500-Foot Community Protection Zone

    CEDS contacted a number of scientists and reviewed various studies and other reports to determine a reasonable separation distance between drip-irrigation fields and homes.  Following are the reasons why the proposed 500-foot Community Protection Zone between drip-irrigation fields and the nearest home should provide reasonable protection: 

  • In Guidelines for Land Treatment of Municipal Wastewaters, the Maryland Department of the Environment requires a 500-foot buffer between homes and areas where partially-treated wastewater is applied via irrigation. MDE applies a 50-foot buffer to drip-irrigation based on the assumption that area residents will never be exposed to wastewater by it rising to the land surface. The experience at the two longest operating drip-irrigation facilities in Maryland shows this to be a flawed assumption. Therefore we believe the 500-foot buffer is reasonable based on MDE policy; and

  • CEDS contacted all of those who live in the vicinity of the two existing drip-irrigation fields in Calvert County. None reported ever experiencing any problems. Since all of these homes are more then 500-feet (with most being at least 750-feet away) this indicates such a buffer should prevent the more obvious impacts.

  • Other Maryland counties require up to a 500-foot separation between the edge of wastewater land application areas and homes.

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    Wastewater Holding Pond & Community Protection Zone

    A pond is required to store wastewater during those periods when frozen ground or other factors prevent release into drip-irrigation fields.  We are also concerned about placing wastewater ponds within 50 feet of residential properties.

    Gateway Holding Pond & Drip-Irrigation Fieldgatewaysewagepond 

    Our concerns about wastewater ponds mirror those associated with the drip-irrigation fields:

    Given these potential health concerns and the unsightly appearance of wastewater holding ponds they should either be located a minimum of 500-feet from the nearest home or placed underground with appropriate measures to control disease vectors

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    About Us

    This campaign was started by the Apple Greene Civic Association, which represents a community of 161 families in the Dunkirk area of northern Calvert County.  A shopping center known as the Shoppes @ Apple Green has been proposed for construction next to the community since the early 1990s.  Wastewater generated in the 130,000 square-foot shopping center would be disposed of in drip-irrigation fields. 

    The residents of Apple Greene became quite concerned when they learned that some of the Shoppes drip-irrigation fields would be within 30 feet of their yards and a sewage holding pond would be just 50 feet away.

    In 2008, the Association retained Community & Environmental Defense Services (CEDS) to determine if there was a legitimate reason to be concerned about the close proximity of the drip-fields or the sewage pond.  While CEDS initially thought drip-irrigation was a pretty good disposal technology, further investigations showed that existing facilities were quite prone to failure.  These failures are detailed above in Drip-Irrigation Reliability Facts.

    The Apple Greene Association has never been opposed to the Shoppes per se.  In fact, from 2008 and into 2010, the Association attempted to resolve their concerns by working with those wishing to develop the Shoppes.  The negotiations began with a detailed letter setting forth the basis for the Association's concerns and proposing a number of alternatives to resolve impacts yet allow the project to proceed.  One of these alternatives was a much more substantial buffer between homes and the drip-fields or sewage pond.  The following document describes the extensive effort made by the Association to reach an equitable agreement: Shoppes Chronology

    In May, 2010, the Association was close to an agreement.  But it was assumed that the failures at the existing drip-irrigation facilities had been resolved.  When wastewater was found to be surfacing yet again in the Marley Run drip-irrigation fields, the Association's confidence in anything less then a 500-foot buffer evaporated.  At this point the Association sent a letter to the applicant calling upon them to find a more reliable disposal technology for the Shoppes or to move the sewage fields and sewage pond a minimum of 500 feet from the nearest home.

    Besides the Apple Greene Civic Association there are now 15 other local or statewide organizations supporting this effort.  For further detail contact CEDS at 410-654-3021 or

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