In what environmentalists called Maryland’s biggest step toward cleaning the Chesapeake Bay in decades, the General Assembly approved new levies on sewer users and septic owners to fund nutrient reduction programs in the state.

The $2.50-a-month “flush tax” that will be added to sewer bills and an equivalent $30 a year fee on septic system owners will finance sewage treatment plant upgrades, replace failing septic systems and pay farmers to plant cover crops and take other nutrient control actions.

Both legislative chambers passed the measure overwhelmingly, thus assuring that the bill will become law.
“This is a huge victory for the Bay, the most significant environmental advance in Maryland in nearly 20 years,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker.

“That the bill was popular among almost all constituencies, and sponsored by a Republican governor and passed by a Democratic legislature speaks volumes about how important it is to reduce nitrogen to save the Bay,” said Kim Coble, CBF Maryland executive director. “Clearly, everyone put the Bay first.”

The sewer fee is expected to raise $60 million per year, which will be used to upgrade sewage treatment plants, which contribute about a quarter of the nitrogen pollution harming the state’s waters and are a major source of phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay.

The assessment on septic tanks is expected to generate $12 million per year, which will be split between helping homeowners improve failing septic systems and paying farmers to grow cover crops to reduce the amount of fertilizer washing from farm fields into streams that feed into the Bay.

Excess amounts of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus lead to too much algae, which causes a lots of problems. The algae form blooms that discolor the water and block sunlight to underwater grasses that provide food and habitat for fish, shellfish, waterfowl and many other species. Algae that go unconsumed by fish sink to the bottom where they are decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes the water of oxygen, creating a “dead zone” that causes fish kills and renders large areas of the Bay unusable for most species.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich had proposed the monthly fee on sewer users to pay the cost of upgrading wastewater treatment plants as the centerpiece of his Bay legislative agenda this year.

But the outcome of the measure looked uncertain for months, as the General Assembly decided that the burden should be spread to the owners of septic systems as well.

While Ehrlich opposes the fee on septic tanks, he said he would sign the bill because “it’s too important to veto.” But the septic fee will not be imposed for more than a year, and the governor said he may try to repeal it at the 2005 legislative session.