Municipal Water Leader

Secretary Ben Grumbles: Advancing One Water Management in Maryland


he Maryland Department of the Environment protects and restores the environment for the health and well- being of all Marylanders, with particular emphasis on the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. Today, one of the department’s main priorities is implementing integrated water management. Water reuse is a major part of this initiative and has a role in increasing water supply, replenishing the local aquifer, preventing saltwater intrusion, and reducing pollution.

In this interview, Ben Grumbles, secretary of the environment for the State of Maryland, speaks with Irrigation Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly about his department’s environmental initiatives, the importance of water reuse, and the challenges of implementing ambitious reuse initiatives across the state.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Ben Grumbles: I worked on Capitol Hill for a decade and a half on water legislation and policy in the U.S. House of Representatives, then served as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for water, heading up the agency’s national programs, and then served as director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. I
learned a lot about western water through those experiences. When I moved back east, I served as president of the U.S. Water Alliance. Governor Larry Hogan nominated me, and the Maryland Senate confirmed me as Maryland’s environment secretary in 2015.

Marylanders are focused on water. Over 90 percent of the state drains into the Chesapeake Bay, and all Marylanders are concerned with the quality and quantity of the water that goes into our streams, rivers, aquifers, and the bay itself. Westerners understand well that in large drainage basins, there are debates between upstream and downstream water users. A major portion of what we focus on in Maryland is the quality of the water in the basin, both within our state and above us in the huge six-state Chesapeake Bay drainage area.

Governor Hogan is focused on working closely with the state’s number 1 industry, agriculture, and the towns and cities that form the fabric of communities throughout Maryland in order to accomplish this.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your water reuse initiative.

Ben Grumbles: A major new area of focus for the Hogan administration and the Maryland Department of the Environment is water reuse. Over the last year, we have been polishing the details of a statewide water reuse initiative,
embracing the fundamental concept of one water, or integrated water management. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see the movement toward integrated water management, reuse, and conjunctive-use concepts across the United States. In Maryland, one water means working with agricultural and municipal sectors, including irrigators, on the reuse of water.

Some Maryland towns and communities are beginning to see water supply challenges. Water is becoming their Achilles’ heel, limiting growth and development. Some towns are interested in indirect potable reuse and gray water recycling. The Maryland Department of the Environment has been working with the legislature on regulations and policy initiatives for water reuse over the last 3 years. Virginia and several other states in the Southeast are further along on the reuse front than Maryland, but we are committed to catching up

Our initiative is not just a sustainable water supply strategy—it is also a water quality strategy. Our ambitious goal is to get as close to zero discharge as possible. It’s also a compliance strategy for water quality standards, total daily maximum load regulations, and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.

In 2019, we recognize that the future of water is reuse. That is not just true on the West Coast or in arid portions of the country. In Maryland, too, we need to devote attention to growth, water quality, and the cost-effective management of our most precious liquid asset. Doing this requires a combination of financial, regulatory, and policy initiatives. All of this came to a head last year when we held discussions with a number of Israeli companies that work on irrigation technologies, wastewater reuse, and cost-effective ways to recycle water for towns and cities. Governor Hogan went to Israel in 2016 and signed a memorandum of understanding on partnerships on a variety of subjects, one of which was water sustainability. On October 10, 2018, the State of Maryland, along with our many different agencies, universities, utilities, and businesses, held a summit at the University of Maryland on water reuse, water security, and cyberterrorism. Maryland has also been busy over the last 2 years as part of the National Governors Association Water Policy Task Force, cochaired by Governor Hogan and Governor Brown of California.

Kris Polly: Tell us more about your initiative and its goals.

Ben Grumbles: Our fundamental goal is to embed the one water principle of integrated and sustainable water management into statewide water policy. Public and private entities are recognizing that although there are different types of water— wastewater, industrial process water, storm water, rainwater, gray water, and irrigation water—they can all be conserved and reused. If you get the experts and stakeholders speaking to one another, you can tap into enormous cost efficiencies and recycle water in a way that makes sense economically and environmentally, and above all, in a way that is protective of public health.

Step 1 is embedding this one water principle throughout state water policy in Maryland. Step 2 is following
through on legislation, regulation, and financial incentives. Last year, we worked with the legislature to enact a law to encourage more residential gray water reuse. We are finalizing regulations pursuant to that law to encourage an expansion of the recycling of gray water. We recently issued new regulations to allow for the use of reclaimed water in certain commercial, industrial, and government applications, including fountains, ponds, toilets, closed-loop cooling, dust control, car washing, and residential watering on nonedible vegetation.

Kris Polly: What are the current projects you are working on in the context of the initiative?

Ben Grumbles: Our water reuse initiative links the business community with towns. One of the most important development projects in Maryland is in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. There is a large, formerly industrial brownfield site where a lot of new businesses are establishing themselves, including Under Armour. A lot of new employees will be working and living there. We are working with the city to come up with water reuse strategies to manage the strain
on the sewers. By collaborating and applying innovative technologies, we can enable smart growth without putting added strain on the sewer systems or the Chesapeake Bay.

We are also working with different businesses to make sure innovative reuse technologies are developed and deployed. Both technology and sociology are important. With any type of reuse strategy, it is important to build both the scientific foundation and public support so that the so-called ick factor does not prevent safe, beneficial projects from moving forward. We have put an emphasis on public education and explaining the concept of one water and the array of public health and environmental safeguards that make reuse safe. We are working with some towns and counties on indirect potable reuse possibilities. For example, Westminster has longstanding concerns about its water supply and the possibility that insufficient supply will restrain growth and economic development. The city has hired an engineer to develop a proposal for indirect potable reuse. We are interested in the project pursued by Hampton Roads, Virginia, which has coastal-subsidence and saltwater-intrusion problems in addition to a water supply problem. Around 5 years ago, they began to develop an expensive wastewater treatment strategy involving reclaiming highly treated wastewater and injecting it underground to recharge the aquifer, stem sea level rise and soil subsidence, and meet water supply needs.

Lastly, there is a strong partnership between the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Maryland Department of Agriculture, and the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. The college has been working with scientists on conservation and reuse strategies. They have a program called Conserve that was heavily involved in our water reuse summit with Israel.

Kris Polly: Is the State of Maryland aware that in the West, farmers have been fertilizing through center pivots to reduce runoff ?

Ben Grumbles: Yes, that is one of the topics the Department of Agriculture, which has a significant water policy portfolio, has been looking at.

Kris Polly: Please tell us about your vision for the future.

Ben Grumbles: Everyone recognizes that water reuse is the future. We are keeping it at the forefront of our minds as we develop initiatives and regulatory policy strategies for spray irrigation, for the reuse of wastewater for industrial processes, and for the redevelopment of brownfield sites. All of this is being done with public health and the environment in mind, and we work to gain public support for that. I want to underscore that while Maryland has a way to go to catch up with states in the West, this water reuse initiative is a priority for us.

Ben Grumbles is the secretary of the environment for the State of Maryland. He can be contacted at For information about Maryland’s Department of the Environment, visit