The Chesapeake Bay watershed has lagged behind many other regions when it comes to setting up stormwater utilities, but that's about to change.
New regulations in Maryland will require the state's nine largest counties to set up stormwater utilities by this summer. Environmental groups are working with communities in Virginia to establish utilities modeled after the successful ones already set up in the Hampton Roads area. And in Pennsylvania, six jurisdictions in the Lancaster area are considering pooling their resources to create a stormwater utility covering rural communities, none of which could finance the endeavor on their own.
The push comes as the public and scientists gain a better understanding of the pollution that comes from stormwater — rainwater that washes sediment, oil, chemicals, animal droppings, heavy metals and other matter from roadways and rooftops into local rivers and streams. Stormwater is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Bay watershed, and one that hasn't been tackled with nearly the intensity that policy managers have spent on nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage-treatment plants or farm fields.
Stormwater not only adds nitrogen and phosphorus to rivers and streams; it also contributes to flooding, both in the low-lying coastal areas and in the dense cities, where impervious surfaces often mean that the water has nowhere to go but inside people's homes.
But attacking the stormwater problem is expensive, and local and state governments have been strapped over the last decade, so they put off improvements.
"If it was cheap and easy, it would be done. But it's neither," said Frank Dawson, assistant secretary of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. "People want to say, 'we don't need to do stormwater management because of the cost.' And then you see what it does to local creeks. If we're not addressing stormwater, we're not addressing those toxics flowing into our waterways."
Other states have long-established practices of handling stormwater through utilities, which charge residents a fee of $2–$13 a month. The money is used to maintain the system's infrastructure, control flooding, clean out stormwater infalls and replace culverts. Stormwater utility fees can also pay for green infrastructure improvements, such as pervious pavement and more trees and collecting ponds.
California, for example, has 40 stormwater utilities — some of which have been in place for two decades. Colorado has 33. Florida, a place that knows all too well the dangers of coastal flooding, has 71, according to a Western Kentucky University 2012 stormwater study.
Of the 1,314 utilities listed in the nationwide study, few are in the watershed. New York has none. Pennsylvania and Delaware each have two, but none of them are within the Bay watershed's boundaries. Maryland has six, West Virginia has seven.
Only Virginia has a significant number – 14 — all of them in the watershed, and many of them in large, coastal urban areas like Hampton Roads. Lynchburg's utility will be added to future lists; it established a stormwater fee in April 2012. Charlottesville and Petersburg are in the planning stages of putting together stormwater utilities, and more will be coming soon, said Hilary Harp Falk, executive director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition, which is offering technical and communications support to the effort.
"It does seem that the communities that have developed utilities have been seen as successful," Falk said. "Utilities are a little contagious. Once one pops up, we see them in other communities."
Last year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law requiring the state's nine largest jurisdictions to implement a stormwater utility fee by this summer. Montgomery County already has one, and the rest of them are working on it, although there has been vocal opposition in Frederick County.
But some communities are going to implement a fee and utility whether or not they have to. In January 2013, Berlin, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, passed a stormwater utility fee that will generate more than $500,000 each year for flood-control projects. Berlin officials worked with the University of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center to develop the plan.
"I think it's very significant for an unregulated community that doesn't have a permit as a driver to move forward to have a dedicated fee," said the center's director, Joanne Throwe. "They could be setting a new trend."
Throwe's center is working with Salisbury, Bowie and Federalsburg to help set up stormwater utilities. And the center is also working with six communities around Lancaster County to establish fees. The city of Lancaster has already launched a major green infrastructure effort to curb stormwater runoff.
Last year, the Pennsylvania legislature considered but did not pass a law similar to Maryland's.
Even with the voluntary efforts, Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Robert Summers is grateful for the requirements. Like the flush fee, where users pay a surcharge each month on their utility bills to finance upgrades to sewage-treatment plants, a dedicated and required revenue source is the best way to tackle this problem, he said.
To anyone who opposes such fees, Summers said, "I would ask, 'how much is your drinking water worth?' "
He added: "Let's get this job started and really try to work on this. Let's not let the fear of this stop us from getting started, because it's just too important."