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A storm-water cleanup fee in your future?

What's clean water and a healthy Chesapeake Bay worth to you?  Lawmakers in Annapolis are eyeing legislation that would require every city, county and town in Maryland to assess a "stormwater remediation fee" on all property owners.

Environmental advocates plan to press for passage of the measure (SB686/HB999) at a hearing today in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. They point out that urban and suburban runoff is a significant and growing source of pollution of the bay as well as of local rivers and streams.

Retrofitting storm drains and reducing pavement in existing communities to keep litter, oil, dog poop and lawn fertilizer out of the water could cost billions in Baltimore city alone - and upwards of $20 billion statewide, by some estimates.

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So far, only three counties and three municipal governments levy any sort of fee to help fix the storm-water problems in their communities: Charles, Prince Georges and Montgomery counties, plus Annapolis, Rockville and Takoma Park. Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties have talked about fees, but have balked at imposing them.  That's why advocates want the state to require them - to give local politicians the spine - or cover - to act.

The bill would leave the size of the fees up to local officials, but would require that all homeowners in each community be charged the same amount.  Non-residential property owners would have to pay based on the amount of pavement and roof they have. Such "impervious surfaces" are the bane of stream health, biologists point out, because streets, parking lots, walkways and buildings prevent rainfall from soaking into the ground.

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A storm-water fee is needed to deal with urban and suburban runoff, argues Clean Water Action's Andy Galli, just as the "flush tax" was called for to upgrade sewage treatment plants in Maryland.  That fee was adopted six years ago.  The storm-water fee's prospects this year remain to be seen. Politicians are leery of raising taxes -- especially now, in the midst of a recession -- and lawmakers in Annapolis have a $2 billion state budget gap to close.

But Halle Vander Gaag of the Jones Falls Watershed Association emailed that she was "pleasantly surprised" by the level of public support seen in recent polling done for environmental groups on the issue.   In a statewide survey by OpinionWorks of Annapolis, half of those asked said they'd be willing to pay an unspecified "reasonable" monthly storm-water fee, with 36 percent opposed.  Another five percent said their support would depend on the size of the fee.

Nearly three-fourths, though, said they'd be inclined to support the fee if one would be imposed in every community statewide, and if the funds would be spent cleaning up streams in their local communities and generating jobs.

What do you think? Would you be willing to pay roughly $1 a month per person to prevent pollution and contaminants from washing off your lawn, driveway, neighborhood streets and parking lots? Legislative analysts estimate that would raise $74 million a year statewide - not the billions said to be needed, but a start, advocates say.

(2009 Baltimore Sun photy by Liz Kay)

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