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Environmentalists, Anti-Tax Activists Battle Over Stormwater Fees To Help the Bay

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Stormwater fees are used in D.C. and Maryland to help clean  up the runoff that makes it into the Chesapeake Bay.
Camil Tulcan: http://www.flickr.com/photos/camil_t/3352002265/
Stormwater fees are used in D.C. and Maryland to help clean  up the runoff that makes it into the Chesapeake Bay.

As far as Jeff Corbin is concerned, there’s really no argument about how urgent stormwater management is for the Chesapeake Region.

“Stormwater management has to occur,” he says, “And if you talk to folks in some areas that are really experiencing stormwater problems, they’re gonna pay for it one way or another — because they’ve got stormwater runoff, not just from a pollution issue, but from a flooding issue.”

Corbin is the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Chesapeake Bay Czar." Officially, he’s a senior advisor to the head of the agency. “Roughly 18, 19, 20 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution coming into the bay and local rivers is coming from urban areas via stormwater runoff,” Corbin says.

And the EPA believes those numbers will only get higher if drastic measures aren’t taken.

Stormwater runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the bay, and it can damage the health of the watershed in other ways as well: carrying sediment into the water and stopping sunlight from reaching underwater vegetation that needs it.

The issue is a big enough deal to have brought Corbin together with more than 100 government and non-profit leaders from across the Mid-Atlantic for a “Stormwater Summit” this past week in Buckeystown, Maryland. And while there was enough concern among participants to fill a cistern, there was also a lot of optimism about what communities are doing to stem the flow of stormwater running off into the bay.

Stormwater Solutions

“If you look around, if you’re walking around D.C. you may not even see a lot of the stormwater management that’s going on. It looks like landscaping,” says Amanda Bassow, with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Her organization provides millions of dollars in grants to cities, towns and nonprofits looking to curb runoff problems.

The stormwater management she’s talking about includes measures such as porous pavement and soil mixtures in sidewalk tree boxes that are designed to absorb excess nitrogen before it leaches into groundwater.

These are fairly simple fixes, but entirely redesigning our urban areas to better control stormwater runoff is no small task — and it’s not a cheap one either.

“Well obviously, we’re not going to pay for it all with grants,” Bassow says.

She says the money her organization hands out in stormwater grants each year — $12 million in all — is primarily aimed at demonstrating the possibilities and spurring innovation.

A Tax Too Far?

But communities aggressive about stormwater management projects are increasingly turning to a stormwater fee, a method commonly derided as a "rain tax" by critics.

D.C. has had a fee since 2009, and Maryland’s version went into effect last summer.

Like D.C.’s version, it requires residents and businesses in ten urban areas west of the bay to pay a fee based on the amount of impervious surface — like driveways or parking spots — on their property. Dee Hodges of the Maryland Taxpayers’ Association isn't a fan of the idea.

“I think if people in Maryland — and I would say all people in Maryland — had any real say about it, they would repeal the rain tax. And it’s a non-partisan issue. They’re angry about it, because they think it’s stupid,” Hodges says.

She says she’s all for a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, but the rain tax as she calls it puts more of a burden on residents and businesses while continuing to ignore what she sees as the biggest pollution problem for the bay: polluted sediment spilling into the Susquehanna River from behind the Conowingo Dam near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

“Oh, it is the biggest problem,” she says. “All the money that these counties are paying, when the heavy rains come over that dam — all the good that happens in these counties is erased.”

The EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Program agree that the Conowingo Dam problems need to be addressed, but say that’s no reason to slow down stormwater management efforts.

But Hodges says that aside from being misguided, the so-called rain tax is just another example of a governor too willing to turn to taxes to fix problems.

And she’s not alone: A new poll from Gallup shows 67 percent of Marylanders feel their taxes are too high, a number higher than all but five other states.

Music: "Sound of Water" by Poi Dog Pondering from Poi Dog Pondering

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