Bay Journal

Reducing stormwater heals people, economy not just waterways

  • By Alison Prost on June 08, 2013
Stormwater gushes into Baltimore’s Herring Run.
The waterway, which has a 31-square-mile watershed, flows through Baltimore and Baltimore County before entering the Back River, which eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay.  (Dave Harp)

There has been a great deal of talk lately about a "rain tax" in Maryland. While catchy, that moniker doesn't begin to get at the heart of the issue.

The issue is stormwater, not rain, and how the 10 largest jurisdictions in Maryland will move forward with implementing fees to pay for reducing pollution from stormwater by July 1. The need to reduce the pollution is not new; these same jurisdictions have had stormwater permits for years, and the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in 2012 requiring them to establish and implement a fee. The Clean Water Act permits target these 10 jurisdictions because they are largely urban areas with a lot of paved areas. Paved areas mean stormwater pollution.

Kudos to the counties—Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince George's —that have established fees or are in the process of finalizing them. Like many farmers, businesses, wastewater treatment operators, and private citizens, these counties are doing their best to comply with their permits and the Clean Water Blueprint for the Bay and its rivers and streams (i.e., the total maximum daily load and Maryland's watershed implementation plan). Other jurisdictions—Charles, Carroll, Frederick and Baltimore City—had yet to step up to the plate as of mid-May.

Stormwater carries some nasty stuff—oil and gas from automobiles, brake pad fibers, pet and other animal waste, pesticides and herbicides, and trash. Most stormwater is untreated. It can make fish sick. Us too, which is why we are warned to stay out of our waterways for 48 hours after a heavy rainfall. In addition, poor stormwater management contributes to flooding that can cost millions of dollars of property damage.

Along with pollution from septic systems, stormwater pollution is on the rise. All of us should care. And all of us have a role to play.

Consider Maryland's Magothy River. Since the late 1980s, the Magothy has been officially listed as impaired, along with other Maryland waterways. A 2010 comprehensive study by the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works found that 94 percent of the phosphorus pollution, 37 percent of the nitrogen pollution, and virtually all of the sediment and bacteria pollution entering the Magothy were the result of stormwater. This pollution puts human health at risk and is not the legacy I want to leave my children.

If the stormwater pollution degrading the Magothy or any of Maryland's rivers were instead coming from industry, the public would have demanded — and the law would have required — that business clean up its act.

Nonetheless, I understand the controversy. Reducing stormwater pollution can be very expensive. And, although there are several federal funding mechanisms that could provide funding assistance to the states, very little has, and so the states and jurisdictions have to shoulder this expense largely alone.

I understand the pain the counties, Baltimore City, and their residents and businesses are feeling. But avoidance is not a responsible solution.

Instead, there must be concurrent efforts. One is raising money, for now through the fees at the local level, coupled with what is included in the state budget for local stormwater projects, and perhaps in the future from the federal government. Another is flexibility, which the law allows and the jurisdictions enjoy. Still another is improved efficiencies. There is a growing effort to demonstrate that stormwater pollution can be reduced far more cost-effectively by investing in "green" infrastructure.

Investing in better stormwater in Maryland's 10 most populous jurisdictions—in fact throughout the Bay states — will not only benefit the health of local waterways, it will improve water quality in the Bay, too.

Additionally, reducing polluted stormwater runoff will create jobs and strengthen local economies. Last February, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center reported that every dollar invested in stormwater management in Anne Arundel County would generate two dollars in benefits to the local economy. In addition, every $100 million invested would create almost 800 jobs.

The simple facts are that we are making slow but steady progress reducing pollution from agriculture and sewage treatment plants and that the Clean Water Blueprint asks each of us to shoulder our fair share of the responsibility for cleanup.

Now is the time for communities such as the 10 jurisdictions in Maryland to step up, as several — but not all — have and set a fair and equitable fee to address our growing stormwater problem.

And in turn, all of us living in communities with polluted streams and rivers can contribute to the solution by taking responsibility for our stormwater through this fee.

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About Alison Prost
Alison Prost is the Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
Read more articles by Alison Prost

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