Calculating The Cost Of Clean Water (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Calculating the Cost of Clean Water

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:02
If you've spent six days a week, for more then 40 years out on the Chesapeake, you probably have an opinion about the health of the bay. And guys like Bob Evans, well, they're not shy about sharing their opinion.

MR. BOB EVANS

00:00:15
We had poor water quality back in the '60s but nothing like we have now. I mean, it's just too many people and too much silt and too much run off, too much trash.

SHEIR

00:00:25
It actually turns out, the federal government, not only agrees with him, it's pressuring local states to do their part in cleaning up. And as environment reporter, Sabri Ben-Achour, is finding out, the bill for that cleanup is pretty darn breathtaking.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:39
So about three years ago, the EPA, said that after 30 years of everyone utterly failing to substantively improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay, it was time to get serious. The agency sent a letter to the states in the watershed saying, if they didn't come up with plans to fix the water that drains into the bay, the EPA would make life miserable for them, withholding grants, coming down hard on waste water treatment plants and livestock farms and otherwise expanding its regulation.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:03
So fast forward two years and the bay states have told all their individual counties to draw up their own plans. Anne Arundel County, Md. was one of the first to start doing so.

MR. ERIK MICHELSEN

00:01:12
We have a right to clean water...

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:14
Erik Michelsen is with the South River Federation. He's helping the county come up with its plan. And it's not cheap. For starters, the county will have to upgrade its waste water treatment plants.

MICHELSEN

00:01:25
$25 million.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:26
It's septic systems need to be hooked to actual sewer lines. They leak sewage nitrogen into the waterways.

MICHELSEN

00:01:32
Around $750 million.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:34
And it needs to fix its storm water system, pipes and gutters which send loads of dirt and grime into the water.

MICHELSEN

00:01:40
About a billion dollar price tag.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:41
That all adds up to...

MICHELSEN

00:01:43
The grand total is about $2 billion.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:45
That is a huge bill. It is almost as much as all the revenue the county takes in over a year. About $4,000 for every man, woman and child. And Maryland has committed itself to putting its cleanup plan in action by 2020. The state can chip in for some parts, using the bay restoration fund and the flush tax for some of the sewage treatment upgrades.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:07
Then the county can scrounge to cover some of its septic costs.

MICHELSEN

00:02:10
Some creative financing mechanisms or some kind of bonding exercises.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:14
But some things are much more uncertain.

MICHELSEN

00:02:17
The storm water piece which is the biggest is the one where there is no real existing source of revenue for...

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:26
Fixing storm water is heavy lifting, building cisterns, retention ponds, special gutters, storm sewers, green roofs, forest buffers. Anything that slows down or filters water from the streets and roofs. Dan Nees is a senior research associate at the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Finance.

MR. DAN NEES

00:02:43
Those communities that are trying to address storm water management are facing a pretty significant challenge. You know, they're going to need to raise revenues so they can raise revenue through taxes, they can raise revenue through fees. They can do it through law, requiring certain regulations about how you build and rebuild, in your county.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:01
The Center for Environmental Finance says it can help by drilling down through a county's finances to figure out the best way to get the most bang for the buck. And many local governments around D.C. have already started what they call, Storm Water Utilities to collect fees for storm water upgrades. On average, it means households, in our area, pay about $50 to $75 per year. But that still doesn't come close to covering the bill coming down the road. And if local governments were hoping to get bailed out by the federal government, they need to think again.

NEES

00:03:30
The politics around money reigning down from on high are very different then they were, even a few years ago. The global economic situation has changed. Here's what we do know, we know that there's going to be, probably, less federal money being spent on this issue.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:43
So that leaves local governments with a big tap.

MR. CHRIS TRUMBAUER

00:03:45
Well, it's certainly daunting.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:47
Chris Trumbauer is a county councilman. He argues, there's more then just costs to think about. There are benefits to infrastructure and jobs that would come with such a massive investment.

TRUMBAUER

00:03:57
I believe that there would be some element of job creation based on that as well because you're going to get, kind of, the blue collar construction jobs as well as the white collar engineering and planning jobs to design these projects and then get them built.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:12
Michelsen, with the South River Federation says, the environmental improvements will be significant.

MICHELSEN

00:04:17
We can't afford not to do it. We need to make an investment in our green infrastructure, in our streams and creeks and our rivers, in the same way that we need to invest in our schools or in pipe infrastructure. I think, people are, frankly, sick and tired of having spent 30 years without any real tangible results.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:37
Richard Eskin is director of science services for the Maryland Department of the Environment. He says, "Everything is far from being worked out but it will be."

MR. RICHARD ESKIN

00:04:44
People are asking for all of the final answers while we're still in the middle of the process. I mean, you can't have your final answers while you're still developing what you need to do. So we'll get there. But we're not there yet.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:05:00
There isn't much time to find a solution and come up with a whole lot of money. That states only have until March to figure it out. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:05:11
How much would you be willing to add to your tax bill to help spruce up the Chesapeake Bay? Send us an e-mail, our address is metro@wamu.org.
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