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Baltimore's stormwater fee is needed to clean the harbor

It may be hard to picture, but it's possible for us to have clean waterways in the Baltimore region. Imagine a Herring Run safe for kids and dogs to play in, a healthy Gwynns Falls, or an Inner Harbor that is no longer hazardous but is actually suitable for swimming and fishing.

Clean waterways generate enormous benefits. It's not just more aesthetically appealing to live near streams and harbors that aren't polluted. It's healthier and safer, and we know that vibrant natural resources (think Patterson Park) can jump-start neighborhood revitalization.

We have a lot of work to do. That was clear recently, when the Healthy Harbor Initiative gave the Inner Harbor a grade of C-minus. That mediocre grade may be better than what you'd expect, but the data painted a picture of an extremely distressed body of water. It's time we agreed that such poor grades are no longer acceptable.

Baltimore's Sustainability Plan, which was developed by the Baltimore Sustainability Commission, includes clean-water strategies. Other groups are doing great work to imagine and promote sustainable practices in our region. And countless neighborhood groups around the area have stepped up to do cleanups, plant trees and install such eco-friendly features as rain barrels.

But that's only part of the answer.

Baltimore City also must institute a stormwater fee — as required by state law — to pay for improvements to the system that handles runoff. This is critically important if we are going to reduce the flow of pollutants, including fertilizer, pesticides, and sediment, that degrade our streams and harbor.

Why is this fee necessary? We need funding to pay for critical improvements to the stormwater infrastructure. Many of the pipes and equipment in the city date to the 1800s. When they fail, more pollution flows into our waterways.

Our inadequate stormwater system also leads to flooding and property damage; in some cases, failures in our stormwater system create problems for the sewer system, leading to sewage backups in homes and businesses. The polluted runoff also poses a risk to public health through contaminated seafood and water contact.

Stormwater runoff is a long-ignored and growing source of pollution and sediment. Today, we have dedicated funds for the pipes that carry wastewater (sewage) and drinking water, but there is no reliable source of funds to upgrade the stormwater pipes.

Funds collected through the fee will be dedicated specifically to job-creating projects that improve our stormwater system and to other projects that filter and clean water, such as planting trees and grasses and restoring streams. And a group of leading environmental and business interests is forming to monitor the fee and make sure the funds are used to improve the stormwater system.

This is not a tax. Rather, it is a fee for service, akin to a water or sewage bill. Each property owner will pay a fee based on the amount of paved or hard surfaces on their property; the more paved surface on a property, the more runoff it generates.

The proposed fee being considered by the Baltimore City Council will be modest for the vast majority of homeowners. For owners of larger properties, the fee will be higher, a reflection of the pollution their properties help generate. But all property owners will have the chance to reduce their stormwater fee by taking steps to reduce runoff.

A business with an aging parking lot could opt for a new one that is pervious, allowing rainwater to soak into the ground — straining out pollution and nutrients — rather than race through the sewer system into the Inner Harbor. A homeowner can install a rain barrel that collects water off of a roof, earning a credit on the stormwater fee and reducing water bills. And a church or synagogue can earn credit on their fee by having members volunteer time on community greening efforts.

We have ignored the runoff problem for too long. This pollution source will continue to grow, and solutions will be more expensive as we build more structures and pave over more open space. We must act now to begin undoing the damage our paved landscape is causing. We urge Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council to create a fee that is fair and broad-based.

But let's be clear: This fee and the projects it pays for will not by themselves solve the problem.

Instead, it's up to us to be better stewards. Dog owners must clean up after their beloved pets. Their waste washes into the bay, degrading the quality of the water. And all of us can do a better job of picking up our own trash. Cups, bottles, cans and cigarette wrappers thrown on the ground eventually clutter up our drains and our streams, polluting the environment, attracting rats and creating eyesores.

We all have a stake in cleaner waterways, and all of us can be part of the solution.

Cheryl Casciani is chair of the Baltimore City Commission on Sustainability and director of neighborhood sustainability at the Baltimore Community Foundation. Her email is ccasciani@bcf.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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