Every time it rains in the South River, the streams that feed it turn to chocolate as they become choked with the sediment running off the land or being eroded from their steep, unstable banks.

But the runoff carries far more than dirt: It also contains a host of other pollutants from nutrients to toxic substances—recent studies have turned up large numbers of brown bullhead catfish with tumors that scientists think may be linked to chemicals used in pavement sealers. Bacteria levels are often high enough after a rainstorm to make water unsafe for swimming.

It doesn’t have to be that way. After Tropical Storm Ernesto passed over the region in September, South Riverkeeper Drew Koslow was filming the chocolate-colored waterways. But when he visited a stream restoration site, where runoff was funneled through a series of small bioretention ponds and sand berms, he found something different: clean water.

“The first pool was muddy, but by the time it got to the second one, the water was clear,” Koslow said.

Now, a group of grassroots organizations want more of the streams in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County to look like that. They are pushing for a monthly fee on homeowners and businesses to fix the long backlog of stormwater problems that have destroyed many of the county’s waterways.

“I see it as the only solution,” Koslow said. “We’ve all created this problem, and if we all contribute to solving the problem, it is going to happen a lot faster than if the government is trying to scrounge up the money to address the issue.”

Whether their efforts pay off may be determined when voters go to the polls in November. That’s because the fee, which many view as a new tax, has become a political issue in this year’s election for the county council and county executive.

“We can restore creeks and rivers that Anne Arundel County is noted for and provide an example for other communities on what it takes to restore the Bay,” said Anne Pearson, director of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities. “It depends on people making the right choices at the polls in terms of things they say they support, like quality of life.”

Ironically, supporters never intended the issue to become political. They just thought they were solving what many view as the biggest threat to local water quality.

The county several years ago adopted new stormwater regulations aimed at controlling pollution from new development. While those regulations can help reduce impacts from new developments, they did little to actually clean up the county’s water, local environmental groups note.

That’s because most county streams are suffering from the legacy of past developments, which took place before the more effective regulations were enacted. Like almost everyplace else, runoff from county parking lots and developments was piped directly into waterways prior to the 1980s. Treatment of stormwater from new development was required starting in 1982, but the techniques used for many years were ineffective for controlling runoff from most storms, so streams continued to degrade.

Now, the job of controlling runoff from those older developments and fixing streams is huge. State surveys ranked 14 percent of the county’s waterways as being in good condition, while 62 percent were poor or very poor. As a result, many streams do not meet water quality standards and will ultimately require restoration actions to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.

A coalition of grassroots organizations, the Anne Arundel Watershed Network, began looking more than two years ago for a way to solve for the problems plaguing the South, the Severn and other county waterways.

Their solution was a “stormwater utility,” a special assessment made specifically to address stormwater problems. It’s a concept gaining momentum nationally as a means of dealing with decades of poor runoff management. According to the journal, Stormwater, the number of stormwater utilities nationwide is estimated to grow from about 500 today to 2,500 in the next decade.

Under the plan proposed by the groups, the utility would charge a $5 per month fee on each home. For larger areas, it would assess $5 per 2,400 feet of impervious surface. The money would go into a Watershed Restoration Fund that could not be used for any other purpose.

The proposal also has an education component. Businesses and residents would be able to reduce their monthly fees by up to 50 percent by installing rain gardens, rain barrels, pervious paving stones or other devices that allow rainwater to infiltrate into the ground rather than go into stormwater systems.

That helps to make a connection between people and stormwater, Pearson said. “That’s why the fee is important. Because when they pay a fee but can get a reduction for doing something like a rain garden, the action has value.”

With the county’s streams in poor condition, some figured the fee issue could be resolved quickly. “I thought we would be finished with it in six months,” Pearson said.

But several things thwarted that time line. One, ironically, was the state’s approval of the “flush tax,” which established a $2.50 per month fee on homeowners to help upgrade wastewater treatment plants around the Bay.

Some politicians are reluctant to level another fee on citizens, especially those with low or fixed incomes. “It’s a tax-cap county,” Pearson said.

In fact, the state attorney general was asked to determine whether the levy would be a tax—which counts toward the tax cap—or a fee, which would not. (The ruling, this summer, was that the utility was a fee.)

Outgoing County Executive Janet Owens opposed the fee, saying it should be up to the next county executive and county council after the issue was debated in an election. A majority of council members echo that sentiment. “I would not support a fee without knowing how the taxpayers feel,” county council member Ron Dillon told the Annapolis Capital after a tour of problem stormwater sites.

Even many of those skeptical of the fee agree addressing stormwater is an issue—they just say that they would prefer the money to come out of the existing county budget, not a new levy.

The watershed groups say that won’t work because the county doesn’t have enough money and faces huge funding backlogs for school repairs and other maintenance. Further, they say, in times of tight budgets, funding to clean up stormwater problems will always lose in competition with other pressing issues, such as education and public safety.

“There is a $400 million backlog of urgent projects,” Pearson said. Depending on how it was implemented, the utility would raise between $20 million and $35 million a year—far more than the county spends on fixing stormwater problems now.

In the Severn watershed alone, the groups say the fund would allow 35 percent of waterways to move from very poor or poor condition to good by 2017. Most of those improvements would not take place without the fee.

Given the position of the council, Pearson and local watershed groups began a campaign to raise the issue with the public.

In the past two years, representatives from various groups have made scores of presentations to business, civic and church groups. They have put up exhibits explaining the issue, and developed white papers and posters.

They have taken people, including county council members, on bus tours to visit problem sites. They have hosted forums on the issue. They presented the case to the local newspaper, the Capital, which published a three-part series about stormwater and has covered efforts to establish a stormwater utility.

They have accumulated testimonials and endorsements for the utility from dozens of community leaders. Pearson created a “Leadership Coalition” of civic, business and other leaders to speak on behalf of the utility.

The campaign seems to have raised the profile of the issue. A poll by Anne Arundel Community College late last year showed that a majority of county residents supported the stormwater fee.

But getting political can be a dicey proposition for grassroots organizations, which have limits on their political activities, including the endorsement of candidates.

“It is a line you’ve got to walk,” Koslow said. “An educated public is our best means of getting candidates that we need into office. We have to be clear that we are not endorsing candidates.”

Kincey Potter, president of the South River Federation, said the broader job of public education is one that fits well with the mission of nonprofit groups.

“Very few people knew what a problem stormwater was.” she said. “The county council didn’t know what the problem was either, and they needed education as well.”

Groups have drawn attention to major problems in the county, such as people who have “mini Grand Canyons” in their back yard, with unstable, eroding banks carved by unmanaged stormwater runoff.

“We’ve had a lot of our residents who have had stormwater issues go down and present them to the county council,” Potter said. “They need to understand that it is not just something the government has to worry about, that real people are affected by it.”

Nonetheless, Potter acknowledged that everyone may not agree with the utility.

“There definitely are people within the organization, and perhaps even on the board, who would like to see all sources of funding explored before a fee is enacted,” she said. “But our experience has pretty much been that if you show people what is going on [with stormwater] they’re pretty shocked. They realize that something needs to be done.”

Anne Arundel County is hardly alone. According to the Bay Program, more than 1,570 miles of streams and 44 square miles of estuarine waters don’t meet local water quality standards because of urban runoff..

But it’s a costly pollution source to control. A report by the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Blue Ribbon Finance Panel put the price tag for dealing with stormwater at about $15 billion—more than the combined cost of controlling all other sources of nutrient pollution. Few localities have dedicated revenue sources targeting the problem.

Addressing those problems throughout the region will require more involvement by local watershed groups, said Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association in Anne Arundel County, which supports the stormwater utility but has a slate of other environmental issues it is pursuing in the election.

“I think there is a political card that is out there that a lot of watershed groups have not played but could be very significant in the process,” he said.

While most groups in Anne Arundel County could not endorse candidates because of their tax status, a new effort has filled that gap. Howard Ernst, author of the book, “Chesapeake Bay Blues,” launched the Blue Crab Project, which is aimed at identifying pro-environment candidates and giving them a “Blue Crab” label.

Although the project is wider than Anne Arundel County and considers more issues, support for the utility was a “major consideration” in making the designation, said Ernst, who is also an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Pledging support for the idea was not sufficient to gain the blue crab distinction,” he said, “but it was a tremendous step in that direction. All the blue crab candidates running for office in Anne Arundel County support the concept.”

In his book, Ernst argued that many mainstream environmental groups are too timid to become actively involved in political issues. But the action of local groups shows how important that engagement can be, he said.

“If the county gains a dedicated source of funding to address its stormwater problems, it will be because of the hard work of grassroots groups,” Ernst said.