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Don’t let politics poison our water

January 14, 2022

As a community, we are approaching two decisions that will have a lasting impact on a key component of our quality of life: clean water. 

The Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission has put forward an amended wetlands buffer ordinance. In its simplest form, buffers are protected vegetative zones established around sensitive areas such as streams, wetlands, tidal waters, wildlife habitats, etc. Importantly, buffers can reduce flood damage. Putting forward this amended ordinance is to be commended. However, from an expert reading of this proposed ordinance, it contains numerous loopholes and shortcomings, some of which could actually do more harm than good. According to Chris Bason, the director of the Center for the Inland Bays, the ordinance allows forests to be cut down inside buffers and replaced with grass. 

Trees not only provide habitat, they store water in their roots, stabilize soil, and, perhaps most importantly as we confront the climate crisis, they sequester carbon from the atmosphere.  This is one of several shortcomings, including in some cases allowing the width of buffers to be cut in half or eliminated altogether. The Sussex County Council should insist on a stronger ordinance, one not riddled with loopholes and exceptions. 

Likewise, the City of Rehoboth must decide whether it will partner with Sussex County to eliminate the treatment of wastewater on environmentally sensitive lands of the county’s Wolfe Neck facility. This outmoded means of treating wastewater can adversely affect our water quality.  Development, when done properly, can enhance and sustain our quality of life. It can maintain the character of our coastal communities, but it must be accomplished in a way that protects our way of life. We should develop according to not just the letter but the spirit of our long-term vision for the values we embrace, and what we want our children to inherit and our communities to become. 

The Center for the Inland Bays is one of 28 National Estuary Programs, charged by the Clean Water Act to protect watersheds, build resilience and help make our waters fishable and swimmable. Inadequate buffer ordinances and politically driven, substandard wastewater treatment work against these goals. 

Rich Innes
Senior policy director, The Association of National Estuary Programs, Lewes
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