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Getting past the 'rain tax' rhetoric

Stormwater is the only source of pollution to local waterways that is growing. There has been much talk lately of stormwater fees as a "rain tax." While catchy, the moniker really doesn't tell the story.

The story begins when those raindrops hit parking lots, roads and other paved surfaces. As they flow downhill, they pick up pollution — oil and grease from automobiles, fertilizer from our yards, and dog waste that wasn't picked up. That pollution flows into storm drains, then into local streams and creeks, then into local rivers.

Let's take a look at one of those rivers, the Magothy River in Anne Arundel County. Since the late 1980s, the Magothy, South, Severn and West rivers have been officially listed as impaired for nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria. That's still the case today. Those impairments have harmed the resources that live in those waterways, as well as increasing human health risks to the point that the health department warns against swimming for 48 hours after a heavy rain. Poor stormwater management also contributes to flooding that can cost millions of dollars in property damage.

In 2010, a 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 in the Magothy River were the result of stormwater.

If the amount of pollution and damage to local waterways as a result of stormwater was coming, instead, from industry, the public would long since have demanded — and the law would have required — that the business clean up its act.

For more than a decade, the largest jurisdictions in Maryland have been required, under the federal Clean Water Act, to have permits for their stormwater discharges. In the past, those permits have not required that pollution be reduced. That is changing.

New stormwater permits will require each of the 10 largest jurisdictions in Maryland to take actions that reduce pollution in local waterways. That's where the stormwater fees come into play. In 2012, the General Assembly, acknowledging that more investments will be needed, passed legislation requiring that jurisdictions with stormwater permits set individual fees to cover at least part of the expense. In essence, the polluter pays — in this case, the polluter being you and me.

The law is flexible, as it should be. Each jurisdiction assesses its needs, what the costs will be, and what proportion of those costs the fee should cover. The law requires those jurisdictions to come up with a plan by July 1.

Investing in better stormwater management will not only benefit the health of local waterways, it will improve the quality of life, and support jobs and local economies. In February, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center studied the economic impact and found that for every $100 million invested in stormwater in Anne Arundel County, there will be $220.2 million in benefit to the local economy, and it would support almost 800 jobs.

We are making slow but steady progress reducing pollution from agriculture and sewage treatment plants, progress that shows what can be done when governments, businesses and citizens work together. But many of our local rivers and streams still don't provide healthy habitat for fish, oysters and other aquatic life. By law, now it is time turn our attention to stormwater.

Some jurisdictions, like Howard, Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have already demonstrated their leadership in addressing their responsibilities. Anne Arundel County's efforts were overturned last week when County Executive Laura Neuman vetoed fair and balanced legislation that the County Council had passed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation hopes this is only a temporary setback.

Charles, Carroll and Frederick counties, as well as Baltimore City, have yet to act.

This is truly the moment for cleaning up our waters. There is a Clean Water Blueprint in place to guide the state and local governments, and many are beginning to implement the practices that will result in cleaner water.

Our children and grandchildren will thank us for saving our local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay — but that will only happen if we make the hard choices and continue the investments needed to achieve the goal.

Alison Prost is Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Her email is aprost@cbf.org.

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