From Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation:
The so-called “rain tax” is easy to demonize. It makes a convenient political target (“Governor Larry Hogan Introduces Legislation to Repeal ‘Rain Tax,’” Feb. 12). What’s harder is to help people understand the reason for the fee, and the risk to Baltimore and Harford counties of reducing the fee or getting rid of it altogether.
First, some history. The 2012 law requiring ten jurisdictions to establish some level of fee came after years of frustration. Since the early 1990’s, the ten jurisdictions have been required by the federal Clean Water Act to meet specific goals to reduce polluted run-off. The federal law singled out these 10 jurisdictions because polluted run-off is often the biggest source of water pollution to urban and suburban rivers and creeks, and because specific rivers in these localities were badly fouled.
In the Patapsco River, for instances, about 23 percent of the nitrogen pollution and 69 percent of sediment pollution comes from the lawn fertilizer, pet waste, construction site dirt and other contaminants that run off the landscape after a storm. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared the Patapsco, as well as other rivers in Baltimore County as “impaired” with too much pollution, including the Gunpowder River, Lower Gunpowder Falls, Middle River, Back River, and Jones Falls.
In Harford County, the Bush River, Lower Winters Run, Atkisson River, and Bynum Run are impaired, along with the Gunpowder, according to EPA. Run-off is a major culprit. In the Bush River, for instance, about 34 percent of nitrogen pollution is from polluted run-off.
What does this mean for residents of these counties? This past summer a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation took some water samples after a major rain storm at a popular swimming hole located on a tributary of the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County. Swimmers didn’t realize it but the water had bacteria counts as high as 36 times the safe level set by the EPA.
But the problem is the nine counties and Baltimore City have not reduced their polluted run-off sufficiently. Most have fallen fall short of goals set by the state, Harford particularly. Money is the issue. When it comes time to budget funds, cleaning up rivers and streams understandably gets short shrift compared to paying teachers, or maintaining water pipes. Before the 2012 law, for instance, Harford was reducing substantially its funding for pollution reduction. The negligence jeopardizes human health in these localities. The run-off problem also causes economic damage, such as flooding. It also prevents the state of Maryland from meeting its commitments to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Given all this, the Maryland General Assembly decided in 2012 it had to act. It required the 10 jurisdictions to collect a fee that would be dedicated only to reducing runoff. The money couldn’t be hijacked for some other purpose. At the counties’ request, the legislature gave them and Baltimore City flexibility to set the size of the fee, and the means of collection. One size doesn’t fit all, the counties argued.
As a result the fee was set at various levels, with Frederick showing its distain by approving a one penny fee, and Carroll County refusing to collect any stormwater fee. Both counties promised to reduce polluted runoff using other revenues. Recently, Harford leaders voted to do the same, and Baltimore County is expected to significantly reduce its fee. Governor Hogan also has proposed legislation to repeal the entire 2012 law.
So where does that leave us? Back at square one. We have promises from the ten jurisdictions that they now will do the work, promises that they failed to keep for years prior to the 2012 law. It also means that in places such as Baltimore County critical new programs funded from the stormwater fee likely will now be demolished or downsized. For instance, the county’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability has an outstanding tree-planting program to reforest 1,500 acres of the suburban county by 2025. Trees planted in key drainage areas are one of the most cost-effective means of reducing polluted runoff. Will that program survive now?
The 2012 law provides some accountability for reduced pollution. Without the law, we will have nothing more than promises. Again. But words will do nothing to make the rivers of Baltimore and Harford counties clean again.
We urge citizens to tell their state delegates and senators not to repeal the 2012 law, and to tell county leaders to reinstate a reasonable-sized fee to tackle a long-neglected problem.