Residential stormwater runoff. Photo © 2010 Krista Schlyer/iLCPA brown river of sediment flows into a storm drain, taking chemicals, oil, and other pollutants from streets and yards with it. Photo © 2010 Krista Schlyer/iLCP 

The Facts About Polluted Runoff and Maryland's Stormwater Utility Fees

Did you know that the only source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that is still increasing is polluted runoff?

Q: What is stormwater/polluted runoff?
Q: Why has urban and suburban polluted runoff emerged as a national issue?
Q: Why has polluted runoff become a big issue in Maryland specifically?
Q: My jurisdiction has a stormwater utility fee. What is that?
Q: Are stormwater fees required by the state?
Q: Why does the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program only apply to some places in Maryland?
Q: If we already pay taxes, why does my local government need to charge additional fees to restore the Bay?
Q: We already pay the Bay Restoration Fee ("flush tax"). Why do I have to pay a stormwater fee, too?
Q: Am I being charged the same amount as other property owners with more pavement or hard surfaces?
Q: What about the assertion that stormwater fees are a tax on rain (or a "rain tax")?
Q: Are the fees used locally?
Q: For places that have fees, why do they differ?
Q: Does the Chesapeake Bay Foundation receive funding from the "rain tax?"
Q: Can I have my fee reduced? I've heard some jurisdictions are offering discounts.
Q: Don't we have bigger pollution problems to worry about? Isn't the water pollution that causes closed beaches and unsafe swim areas caused mostly by sewage spills, not polluted runoff?
Q: Do stormwater utility fees or the cost of cleaning up polluted runoff hurt Maryland's business competitiveness?

Q: What is stormwater/polluted runoff?

A: As water flows off of our streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, it picks up fertilizers, pesticides, oil, and automotive fluids, pet waste, sediment, and other pollutants. This simple process—untreated stormwater flowing through gutters and storm drains—pollutes our rivers and streams and threatens our drinking water. It also causes problems like local flooding of streets and homes, beach closures, fish advisories, and sewage system overflows.

Q: Why has urban and suburban polluted runoff emerged as a national issue?

A: Up until about the 1980s, builders didn’t know much about the problems associated with polluted runoff. They just designed developments to flush the water off the property quickly. Now we realize runoff should be slowed down and soaked up to prevent pollution from running off developed areas and into our local rivers and streams.

In fact, in the Chesapeake Bay region, this sort of pollution is the only major pollution sector still on the rise. Air pollution is down, as is pollution from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture. Tackling urban and suburban runoff remains a big challenge as our state continues to grow.

Q: Why has polluted runoff become a big issue in Maryland specifically?

A: Maryland's cities and suburban areas contain some of the highest concentrations of impervious surfaces—hard surfaces where water can't be absorbed by and filtered through the ground—in the whole Chesapeake Bay watershed. And, not surprisingly, the state also has a huge list of waterways that are officially considered polluted. In fact, the "impaired waters" list includes waterways in every county in the state. Damage from this pollution to the Chesapeake Bay is also dramatic, because Maryland's concentrated areas of urban and suburban development are close in proximity to the Bay compared to urbanized areas in most of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint requires each of the Bay states to reduce pollution or be subject to consequences for failure. But polluted runoff has ramifications far beyond the health of the Bay. This pollution damages local rivers and streams, is often responsible for expensive flooding, and, especially after a significant rainfall, can put human health at risk.

Q: My jurisdiction has a stormwater utility fee. What is that?

A: Just like other services, such as water and sewer or gas and electric, stormwater can be managed as a utility that is supported by a billed fee. A stormwater utility fee is based on the idea that all developed properties contribute to polluted runoff in their watershed and should help support efforts to reduce this runoff and the pollution that it carries.

Q: Are stormwater fees required by the state?

A: In 2012, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program. While this legislation originally required the 10 largest and most urban jurisdictions in the state to set fees to address their polluted runoff problems, revisions to the law in 2015 removed that fee requirement. It did not remove the requirement that these jurisdictions clean up stormwater pollution. In fact, it increased accountability for doing so by requiring that jurisdictions demonstrate they have adequate funding and plans in place to reduce their polluted runoff.

Q: Why does the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program only apply to some places in Maryland?

A: These 10 urban areas have the most land that doesn't allow water to filter slowly into the ground (impervious area). They are also the only jurisdictions in Maryland charged with meeting very strict federal Clean Water Act permits. Under the revised 2015 state law, these counties are required to have plans in place that demonstrate what activities they will undertake to clean up polluted runoff and how they will pay for it. Counties are required to have adequate funding set aside in a dedicated fund to be used only to clean up polluted runoff. How they come up with this funding is up to them. Some counties will allocate it from their general funds while others will keep their stormwater utility fees in place to ensure they have the funding needed.

Recognizing the water quality threat posed by polluted runoff, some counties and municipalities have taken a lead in addressing the problem without requirements from state law or Clean Water Act permits. Some have had similar fees and programs in place for decades. For example, Prince George's County has assessed a tax for polluted runoff since 1986. Bowie has charged commercial properties a fee to address polluted runoff since 1988. Salisbury created a volunteary stormwater utility fee in 2014-15 to address poor local water quality caused by polluted runoff and aging storm drain infrastructure. A number of other areas implemented similar fees in the 1990s and 2000s.

Q: If we already pay taxes, why does my local government need to charge additional fees to restore the Bay?

A: With all the challenges they face, state and local governments have often chosen to do the minimum required to reduce polluted runoff. With adequate dedicated funding, local governments can implement practical, proven solutions that were previously too expensive, or that could have only been done if money was taken from other important social services. The fee also provides important leverage for financing projects with bonds or state revolving loans. Regardless of financing option, local creeks and rivers will get cleaner only to the degree local officials fund needed work. Little or no new funding will continue to mean dirty, unhealthy local waters.

Q: We already pay the Bay Restoration Fee ("flush tax"). Why do I have to pay a stormwater fee, too?

A: The Bay Restoration Fund or "flush tax" money goes to upgrading sewage plants. The money is being well spent. Most major plants in the state have been upgraded or are being upgraded, reducing nitrogen pollution into local waters by more than six million pounds a year. The flush tax was doubled in 2012 to finish the job of upgrading sewage plants. Your stormwater fees go to upgrade the stormwater system—the ponds, pipes, gutters, and other structures that channel and treat polluted runoff before it reaches creeks, also reducing flooding. That spending will provide substantial, additional pollution reductions in each community.

Q: Am I being charged the same amount as other property owners with more pavement or hard surfaces?

A: Local governments are given complete freedom to decide not only the size of their fee, but how it is collected. Some opt to charge property owners with more "impervious surfaces" higher fees. Other jurisdictions use a "flat fee." Jurisdictions take different approaches to funding their polluted runoff cleanup.  Contact your local government for more detailed information.

Q: What about the assertion that these stormwater fees are a tax on rain (or a "rain tax")?

A: That moniker is catchy but blatantly false. It is designed to mislead and confuse. The truth is that we are talking about a fee to reduce pollution from water that washes off hard surfaces and empties into local waterways. Runoff pollution is real—it is responsible for no-swimming advisories and beach closures in local waters, fish consumption advisories, and dead zones in the Bay that can't support aquatic life. It also causes localized flooding and property damage. And in many areas, it is the largest source of pollution. If we delay this important work, in the end it will cost more to clean up polluted runoff and reverse its negative impacts to water quality and the Bay's economy.

The bottom line is that this work must be done. There are federal and state requirements to reduce runoff pollution from urban and suburban areas. A fee on impervious surface is often the best model to do this because the fee is connected to the cause of the pollution. Counties that don't have stormwater fees must raise the revenue by other means, such as property taxes or income taxes.

Q: Are stormwater fees used locally?

A: Yes! If your jurisdiction has a fee, it is collected by the county or city and used only in that county or city to fix polluted runoff problems. The money will never go into a state fund, and there is accountability and transparency.

The fee are used for simple, proven solutions that work by slowing down and absorbing much of the polluted runoff. These solutions include planting trees, planting vegetation around streams, restoring stream beds, and using rain barrels and rain gardens. These local projects not only reduce pollution and improve water quality, but also make our communities more beautiful, reduce flooding, and create jobs. Scientific monitoring will verify that the projects are effective and efficient.

Q: For places that have fees, why do they differ?

A: Each county and city is unique, and so are their water quality problems. Counties and cities also have very different fiscal circumstances, which influence how they can pay for polluted runoff cleanup. Despite the amount of work needed to restore Maryland's rivers and streams, Maryland's polluted runoff fees are lower than those in quite a few other states.

Q: Does the Chesapeake Bay Foundation receive funding from any of the fees?

A: Absolutely not. Neither do we receive a penny of funding from the Bay Restoration Fund, or "flush fee." These are government initiatives. We are a non-profit, private agency.

Q: Can I have my fee reduced? I've heard some jurisdictions are offering discounts.

A: Many local governments offer some type of credits or discounts if a property owner takes steps to reduce polluted runoff from his land, and some of those credit or discount programs are required by the 2015 legislation to ensure that fees don't pose an undue hardship on property owners. Contact your local government to learn more about credits or discounts that may be available where you live.

Q: Don't we have bigger pollution problems to worry about? Isn't the water pollution that causes closed beaches and unsafe swim areas caused mostly by sewage spills, not polluted runoff?

A: Polluted runoff from city and suburban landscapes is the only major type of water pollution that is increasing in the region. Pollution from farms, sewage plants, and other sources is decreasing. Thanks to the "flush fee," for example, we've dramatically reduced nitrogen pollution from sewage plants. A handful of sewer systems in the state are so old it will take many years more to stop recurring spills and overflows. Spills from those systems can play a major role in beach closings. But Sally Hornor, a microbiologist with Anne Arundel Community College who has tested county water for years, says bacteria from polluted runoff is the culprit in unsafe swim areas far more often. Sewage spills are occasional. Polluted runoff occurs after every storm generating about one-half inch of rain or more.

Q: Do stormwater utility fees or the cost of polluted runoff clean-up hurt Maryland's business competitiveness?

A: Forward-thinking community leaders believe the benefits to communities from addressing polluted runoff far outweigh the speculative concern that businesses will relocate. These benefits include safe, swimmable, fishable water, as well as the economic benefits that come from having a clean and healthy environment. And if businesses consider relocating to Delaware, Pennsylvania, or Virginia instead of Maryland, they might be surprised to learn that 18 local jurisdictions in Virginia, eight local governments in West Virginia, at least two municipalities in Delaware (including the largest, Wilmington), and several in Pennsylvania already have stormwater fee systems in place—and these numbers are growing. Nationwide, nearly 1,500 jurisdictions—including large cities like Houston and Tampa—have similar policies in place—and they are working.

Water Tests Show High Levels of Harmful Bacteria in Some Fresh Water Streams and Lakes in Frederick, Howard, and Harford Counties

July 16, 2015—Some fresh water streams used for swimming, fishing, and other recreation in Maryland have high levels of potentially harmful bacteria, especially after rainstorms, according to water samples taken to date through the summer. Some tests showed bacteria readings as much as 200 times above safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  See the results or read the press release.

Stormwater Remediation Fees in Maryland—Local Implementation of House Bill 987 of 2012

Cover: MD DLS Stormwater Remediation Fees in Maryland

The Stormwater Remediation Fees report from Maryland's Department of Legislative Services outlines the background and fees of the House Bill 987 of 2012, commonly known as the Stormwater Utility Fees.

STORMWATER REMEDIATION FEE INFORMATION BY COUNTY

Anne Arundel County

Baltimore County

Howard County

more to come

BEST PRACTICE GUIDE
FOR LOCAL STORMWATER UTILITIES, AUTHORITIES, & FEES

CBF's Best Practice Guide outlines best practices for structuring and implementing local funding mechanisms—such as stomwater utilities, authorities, and fee systems —to address stormwater challenges in ways that are sustainable and adaptable for all localities. Get the Guide

From the CBF Blog

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