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Your 'Rain Tax' Dollars at Work: Baltimore's mandatory stormwater-management improvement plan is out for public review

Of all the city's watersheds, the Jones Falls is set to receive the lowest level of investment under the stormwater plan.
Of all the city's watersheds, the Jones Falls is set to receive the lowest level of investment under the stormwater plan. (Van Smith)

The City of Baltimore will soon start using almost $80 million in revenues from its stormwater-management fees on property owners—what detractors call the “rain tax”—on 95 projects around the city between now and 2019. The projects are detailed in an 81-page “Watershed Implementation Plan” (WIP) released by the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) on Dec. 19, and public comments about the plan are being accepted until Jan. 30, according to DPW spokesman Jeffrey Raymond. 

The WIP is required under the city's stormwater permit, which allows discharges from the city's "municipal separate storm sewer system," better known as MS4, into streams and the Baltimore harbor. It seeks to reduce stormwater contamination—Baltimore's main cause of water pollution—by reducing the city's "total maximum daily loads" (TMDLs) of pollution and trash entering the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The WIP's stated goal is to meet the MS4 permit's requirement that the city restore "an equivalent" of 4,041 acres of hard surfaces in the city that don't absorb the rain, impervious areas where "stormwater runoff is not currently managed."

"I think it's important for people to understand that this is what their stormwater utility fee is being used for," says Alice Volpitta, the water-quality manager for the clean-water advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore, which closely monitors the MS4 process. "Both supporters of the fee and those who would call it a 'rain tax' deserve to know how their money will be spent, and that's exactly what this document aims to clarify," she continues, adding that "DPW is also looking to hire an additional 53 to 75 people for the implementation and maintenance of these programs and projects."

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The 95 projects detailed in the WIP account for the equivalent of 1,191 impervious acres. Of the remainder, 2,766 acres are slated to be achieved by water-quality improvement programs such as street sweeping, cleaning up the harbor's inlets, and detecting and eliminating illicit discharges to the stormwater system, and another 279 acres via partnerships for privately developed stormwater improvements. In all, these efforts are expected to reduce the water-pollution load from the city by keeping 40,000 pounds of nitrogen, 15,000 pounds of phosphorus, and 2,400 tons of sediments from reaching the Bay between now and 2019.

The overall cost of the projects is estimated to be $77,741,000, and the main source of funding is the stormwater utility fee, which between Sept. 15, 2013 and June 30, 2014 raised $23,390,580, according to the WIP. The level of investment is divided unevenly among the city's watersheds: The Back River watershed, of which the Herring Run is the main city tributary, is set to host 28 projects totaling nearly $35 million, followed by the Gwynns Falls (20 projects, about $24 million), the Jones Falls (12 projects, almost $14 million), and the harbor (33 projects, over $5 million). Another two city-wide tree-planting and impervious-surface removal projects are estimated to cost nearly $600,000.

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The bulk of the spending—more than $50 million—is dedicated to stream restoration, which the WIP says is a job-creating "opportunity to reduce erosion and sedimentations [sic], increase natural channel flow, and improve the health of the stream and adjacent riparian areas." It also points out that "Baltimore's streams are highly degraded, with eroding banks, collapsing outfalls, and exposed sewer lines," so they can use the attention and investment. About 55 percent of the WIP's estimated project-based nitrogen reduction, as well as 90 percent and 85 percent of its phosphorous and sediment reduction, respectively, is expected to come from stream restoration.

Analyzing the costs of the different types of projects turns up the fact that the WIP's most cost-efficient pollutant-reducing approach is what it describes as a "regenerative step pool storm conveyance." While the WIP does not provide any further information about the technology, public documents from Anne Arundel County describe them as "open-channel conveyance structures that convert, through attenuation pools and a sand seepage filter, surface storm flow to shallow groundwater flow." Baltimore's WIP calls for one such project, located on Seamon Avenue in the Cherry Hill area. At a cost of less than $1.2 million, about 1.5 percent of the total spending, this single project accounts for about 17 percent of all the project-based nitrogen reduction forecast by the WIP, as well as 1.5 percent of all the phosphorus reduction and 1 percent of the sediment reduction.

Most of the WIP's projects—53 of them, costing about $46.9 million—are scheduled to start construction in 2018, which Volpitta says "looks extremely ambitious." The only projects slated to begin in 2015 are what the WIP describes as two "micro-bioretention" structures, better known as rain gardens, to be followed in 2016 with another 15 rain gardens, a stormwater pond in the vicinity of East Baltimore's Pulaski Industrial Area, and stream restoration in the lower Jones Falls.

The WIP is available for review at cleanwaterbaltimore.org, and public comments can be submitted by emailing them to publicworks@baltimorecity.gov, using the subject line "MS4 WIP," or by mailing them to MS4 WIP, Baltimore City Department of Public Works, Office of Compliance and Laboratories, 3001 Druid Park Drive, Baltimore, MD 21215.

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