While only contributing about 16 percent of the water pollution across the watershed, urban and suburban pollution is the only major pollution sector still on the rise. Often completely untreated, it creates a very damaging local problem that demands local solutions.
Here is the story of just one river in Maryland. This story demonstrates the harm we citizens have unwittingly unleashed on our local rivers and streams.
This story is being repeated across the watershed.
The Bush River in Harford County was a favorite crabbing spot for many and, until recently, one of the watersheds with the highest water quality in the region. According to the Maryland Department of Environment, it is now listed as an “impaired water” under the Clean Water Act. The single greatest source of nitrogen and sediment pollution in the Bush River is not agriculture, not septic systems, not wastewater treatment systems. It is polluted runoff, what many call “stormwater.”
In the Bush River, underwater grasses fell from just a little more than 141 acres in 2002 to just more than 48 acres in 2012. Given Maryland’s Bush River restoration target of 356 acres, this seems like cause for concern and underscores the need for a solution.
In Harford County and elsewhere, water running off of roofs, driveways, lawns and parking lots picks up trash, motor oil, grease, excess lawn fertilizers, pesticides, dog waste and other pollutants. It washes them into the streams and rivers flowing through our communities. Every inch of rain falling on an acre of roads and parking lots creates 30,000 gallons of polluted runoff, about the same amount of water as in an 18 x 36 foot swimming pool.
Throughout the region, nitrogen pollution fuels algal blooms and creates dead zones with too little oxygen to support aquatic life. The sediment clouds the water and prevents Bay grasses from growing, just as it has in the Bush River.
Work is already under way to reduce pollution from air, agriculture and wastewater treatment plants. It is time to restore the Bush River and many other waterways. How better to restore the Bush if not by reducing the primary pollution source?
And what are some of Harford County’s leaders proposing to do about it?
They are decrying the so-called “rain tax,” a moniker that is simple and catchy. And patently misleading. This so-called “tax” is a fee on pollution we know to wreak havoc on local water quality. The fee, which will be used by counties to clean up pollution, is a local solution to a local problem.
Dedicated local fees to clean up polluted urban and suburban runoff are not new. In fact, more than 1,400 communities across the country already have put such fees in place.
When we invest in local pollution reduction practices, like naturally filtering trees or ponds, we clean up the local waterways, reduce the risk of damaging flooding and protect drinking water sources. Cleaning up our local rivers and streams has an immediate, positive effect, including reduced human health risks, improved fishing opportunities, reduced flooding and the creation of local jobs.
Some Harford County leaders, though, are proposing to do away with the recently enacted fee dedicated to cleaning up polluted runoff in the county.
In fact, the county has allocated no money in next year’s budget to the priority projects the county has already planned. If Harford County does away with its fee, it will be out of compliance with state law. It also could lose state and federal dollars to help address polluted runoff and, as a result, have a budget of zero to solve local water impairments.
Does this make any sense?
It does not. Taking care of local waterways benefits local people and helps to restore the Bay. It’s a win-win legacy that we can achieve in our lifetime, and one that will benefit future generations.