Chesapeake Bay, a recovery in progress

Last week, Maryland’s second highest court ruled that the stormwater remediation fee — sometimes derisively called the “rain tax” — can legally be collected from the Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation, which owns two neighboring synagogues and a parking lot in Liberty Heights near Druid Hill Park. Congregation attorneys had sued the city, arguing that the tax amounted to a property tax and a religious institution should be exempt. A circuit court judge ruled otherwise, and now that decision has been affirmed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. The whole thing might be chalked up to an interesting future law school lesson in taxes versus religious freedom if not for one other consideration — the stormwater management fee sure attracts a lot of haters.

We certainly wouldn’t second guess the congregation. The dollars involved were relatively small (a total of $150 per quarter as of 2014, according to court documents), but the principle of tax exempt land use by religious organizations likely loomed large — yet the reason why the fee exists in the first place can easily be overlooked. The point of the fee first enabled under a 2012 state law is to allow Maryland jurisdictions, in this case, Baltimore, to take steps to reduce the amount of pollution flowing off streets and sidewalks when it rains, sleets or snows. From animal waste to pesticides, to sewer overflows and plain old loose soil that is picked up by the stormwater, the problem is worsened by the presence of non-porous surfaces. Instead of having the dirty water stay put and filter into the ground, the toxins and excess nutrients often pour into storm systems and creeks and rivers and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

Has the tax done any good? As it happens, last week produced another wave of news that deserves further consideration as well: A recent survey found that underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay are more widespread than at any time since 1984 when scientists started tracking them by plane. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science report estimates the grasses — which provide vital food and habitat, reduce excess nutrients, add life-giving oxygen to the water and trap sediment and help halt erosion — now surpass 100,000 acres bay-wide. One of the sharpest improvements was in Baltimore’s own Patapsco River.

This was not some coincidence. Experts credit the various ways Maryland and other states in the watershed have reduced pollution for the improved circumstances in the Chesapeake Bay — of which the returning grasses are just one yardstick. There are a host of others from regulations protecting the so-called “critical areas” near waterways from being disturbed to rules that attempt to limit nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farms. And it has surely been helpful that states have tried to achieve this progress in a coordinated way thanks in no small measure to the continued involvement of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the Annapolis-based office mercifully spared an untimely death from President Donald Trump by the intervention of Congress and $73 million in the last spending bill.

Marylanders may not always appreciate it, but rare are those occasions when neighboring jurisdictions work cooperatively to reduce pollution — and produce as much favorable result — as the Chesapeake cleanup. That’s not to suggest the bay is pristine. It isn’t. The overall health has variously been judged at the “C” or “D” level depending on the report card one follows, but all such ratings suggest there have been significant improvements. Rockfish, for example, were once so decimated by pollution and overfishing in the Chesapeake that their catch was banned in 1985. They’ve since come back much healthier and more abundant than before. Oysters may yet experience a similar rebound, which given their own water filtering habits would be a landmark achievement.

That’s something to keep in mind as voters make decisions for local and state elections this year. Four years ago, Republicans including Larry Hogan made it a point to run against the “rain tax.” Yet the governor seems to have seen the light, having advocated to make the fee optional for local jurisdictions (which it already had been in practice). If candidates have similar complaints about Chesapeake Bay restoration measures this year, we haven’t heard them — at least not like the angry rain tax salvos of 2014. Not every voter likes every regulation and fee, of course, but it’s clear a majority favors clean water and an upgraded Chesapeake Bay. And Marylanders understand that such improvements don’t happen by accident, they happen because of the little sacrifices we are willing to make from paying a little more for sewer service to “smart growth” limits on land development and, yes, a tax to clean up stormwater runoff.

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