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Calculating the Cost of Clean Water

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The Environment Protection Agency is cracking down on state officials to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Kevin Coles: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kcjc/511296815/
The Environment Protection Agency is cracking down on state officials to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA's unfunded mandate

Local waterways can be a tough place to live for many marine species. Some of these waters are plagued by buried pockets of fertilizer from lawns and farms, raw sewage, and buried pockets of industrial waste. This eventually seeps into the Chesapeake Bay. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing hard to get states to clean up their acts, and reports indicate that process is going to cost billions of dollars.

The EPA told the states in the watershed two years ago that if they didn’t come up with plans to fix the water draining into the bay, it would make life difficult for them -- withhold grants, come down hard on wastewater treatment plants and livestock farms, and otherwise expand its regulation. Fast forward two years, and the bay states have told all their individual counties to draw up their own plans.

Anne Arundel County in Maryland was one of the first to start doing so. Erik Michelsen, with the South River Federation, is helping the county come up with its plan, but it's not going to be cheap. According to Michelsen, the tab is as follows:

  • $250 million for upgrades to wastewater treatment plants
  • $750 million to link leaky septic systems to sewer lines
  • $1 billion to fix the stormwater system, including pipes and gutters, which send dirt and grime into the water


"The grand total is $2 billion dollars,” says Michelsen.  

That's equal to nearly all the revenue the county takes in during a year. It amounts to about $4,000 for every man, woman and child. The state  can chip in for some parts, using the Bay Restoration Fund and Flush Tax for some of the sewage treatment upgrades. And the county can scrounge to cover some of its septic costs through bonds, but there is no existing source of revenue to cover the stormwater repairs, which are the biggest piece.

Maryland has committed to putting its plan in action by 2020. Fixing stormwater is heavy lifting; it includes building cisterns, retention ponds, special gutters, storm sewers, green roofs, forest buffers -- anything that slows down or filters water from the streets and roofs.

Finding solutions people can stomach

The Unversity of Maryland's Center for Environmental Finance says it can help counties figure out how to get the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to watershed cleanup. Many local governments have started what they call Stormwater Utilities, to collect fees for stormwater upgrades. On average, it means households in the D.C. area pay about $50-$75 per year toward the upgrades, but that still doesn’t come close to covering the bill. And if local governments were hoping to get rescued by the federal government, they need to think again. 

"The politics of money raining down from on high are very different than they were even a few years ago," says Dan Nees, a senior research associate at the Center for Environmental Finance. "The global economic situation has changed. Here’s what we do know -- we know that there’s gonna be less federal money spent on this issue."

According to Anne Arundel County Councilman Chris Trumbauer, people shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits that would come with such an investment. "You’re going to get the blue-collar construction jobs as well as the white collar engineering and planning jobs to design these projects and get them built," he says.

Infrastructure would be improved says Michelsen, with the South River Federation, who adds the environmental improvements will be significant. 

“We can’t afford not to do it," he says. "We need to invest in our green infrastructure in the same way that we need to invest in our schools or pipe infrastructure. I think this issue is too important. I think people are sick and tired of having spent 30 years without any tangible results."

It’s also a very sensitive process. Of the 12 elected officials from Anne Arundel county contacted for this story, only one responded by press time and agreed to be interviewed. And there isn’t much time to find a solution and come up with a whole lot of money:  the states have until March to figure it out.  

[Music: "Dollar Girl" by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark from Liberator (:00-:29 is instrumental. could be looped to make a fun button)]

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