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Maryland is setting new standards for watershed health with its latest law

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In a landmark decision, Maryland lawmakers unanimously passed the Whole Watershed Act (SB 969/HB 1165), marking a significant step forward in the state's conservation efforts. Led by Senator Sarah Elfreth of Anne Arundel and Delegate Sara Love of Montgomery, this legislation aims to create a collaborative and science-based framework for restoring Maryland's waterways. The bill would launch a five-year pilot program targeting various watersheds across the state with the goal of improving water quality and promoting ecological resiliency.

Gov. Wes Moore, whose approval was crucial to the bill's success, is now facing calls from environmental groups and state agencies to sign the law into law. This legislative victory was achieved through the collaborative efforts of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Chesapeake Conservancy, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters and other key stakeholders.

The Whole Watershed Act emerged in response to the 2023 Comprehensive Evaluation of System Response (CESR) report, which highlighted the need for innovative approaches to restoring waterways in the Chesapeake Bay area. Leveraging existing state funding, the bill will focus on five watersheds in Maryland that reflect the state's diverse land uses and environmental challenges. These pilot projects are intended to not only improve water quality, but also improve public access to waterways, wildlife habitats, fisheries and climate resilience.

The selection of target watersheds requires close collaboration with local stakeholders and authorities to ensure that projects are tailored to the unique needs and opportunities of each area. A state management team of agency experts will oversee the implementation and monitoring of these projects, aiming to streamline approval processes and optimize financing.

Senator Elfreth hailed the Whole Watershed Act as a model for government collaboration and innovation. “This legislation is a testament to what can be achieved when we unite all levels of government to fund and accelerate holistic environmental projects,” Elfreth said. Delegate Love echoed this sentiment and emphasized the role of legislation in promoting collaborative and comprehensive watershed restoration efforts.

This groundbreaking initiative has been designated a 2024 legislative priority by the Citizens' Campaign for the Environment, reflecting its importance to Maryland's environmental and conservation agenda.

Environmentalists have praised the Whole Watershed Act for its potential to accelerate progress in restoring the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Allison Colden, Maryland Executive Director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, highlighted the law's science-based approach and its alignment with the goals of the CESR report. Similarly, Kim Coble of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters emphasized the bill's commitment to environmental justice and equitable stewardship, calling it a critical step toward sustainable waterway health.

As Maryland prepares for this ambitious recovery journey, the Whole Watershed Act stands as a beacon of innovative environmental policy and promises a healthier future for the state's waterways and communities.