What You Need to Know About Polluted Runoff Fees

Outfall credit South River federationPhoto courtesy of South River Federation.

During the last election cycle, politicians mostly said "we're definitely supportive of restoring the Chesapeake Bay, but [fill in the blank for some aspect that a particular constituent has managed to get the prospective public official riled about]." 

And nothing riles more than a new regulation, or something that must be newly funded for it to work.

As most of us know, the Bay has a relatively fixed set of pollution sources. These include wastewater treatment plants and industry, agriculture, air pollution, septic systems, and urban and suburban rooftops, lawns, streets, and parking lots. Some of the first few are making pretty good progress in reducing pollution loads, though of course more needs to be done to meet the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint set up by the U.S. EPA and the watershed states.

But that last category is a tough nut to crack, and it can be (though isn't always) expensive. One of the biggest problems is fixing the systems built years ago to move water quickly off the landscape, and directly into the nearest stream--mostly untreated. As more of the landscape hardened up, the problem of polluted runoff and local flooding into and around our local streams and rivers worsened (see our report, Polluted Runoff: How Investing in Runoff Pollution Control Systems Improves the Chesapeake Bay Region's Ecology, Economy, and Health). That's where we stand today, trying to deal with the one Bay pollution sector--urban and suburban runoff--that still appears to be on the wrong trajectory.

Recognizing this, the federal Clean Water Act permits issued to municipalities for this very pollution source have been getting tougher. This means that local jurisdictions have to undertake a lot more of the work necessary to retrofit new runoff management techniques into their urban and suburban areas. And that costs money.

Among the best ways to pay for public services like this is to set up a public utility, similar to the ones that treat our wastewater. In this case, special fees are charged to landowners, relative to the amount of hardened surfaces they have that allow pollution to run off, so municipalities can undertake this restoration work. Stormwater utilities, authorities or other special fee structures are locally formed and operated. They aren't mysterious. More than 1,400 municipalities in 39 states across the country already have implemented stormwater utilities of some kind--including some 25 in Virginia, a dozen or so in Maryland, and some half dozen in Pennsylvania. They are local solutions to a local problem.

Though a number of Maryland's would-be politicians decried these "rain taxes" during the last election cycle, as noted here, they're not really that at all. And the special funds are badly needed to reduce this significant source of pollution.

To help municipalities and citizens better understand the scope and nature of these utilities, as well as set them up in the most effective way possible, CBF has just published a new Best Practices Guide, Local Stormwater Utilities, Authorities, and Fees. The eight-pager describes the nature of such a utility, the necessity of good public education on the issue, tips for fair statutes and ordinances, setting up budgets and fees, and putting the best, most-effective projects on the ground.

By reducing the mystery and increasing the quality of such systems, we hope many municipalities will voluntarily adopt them. We also hope that those local jurisdictions which already have, will operate them efficiently and effectively to obtain the results their local streams and rivers, and the Bay, so badly need.

--Lee Epstein, CBF's Director of Lands Program

Recently some Maryland leaders, including Gov. Hogan, are threatening to roll back clean water progress in our Bay and its rivers and streams. If ever there was a time to act on behalf of your local waterways, this is it. Please contact Gov. Hogan and your state legislators and remind them that Maryland has committed to make steady, measurable progress on clean water restoration under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. We can't backtrack on the Bay! We must continue--indeed, accelerate--efforts to reduce urban, suburban, and agricultural polluted runoff. 

Issues in this Post

Polluted Runoff   Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint   Maryland Office, Annapolis  



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