Would you be willing to pay a few dollars more every month -– perhaps the price of a Subway sandwich and a soda -- to keep sewage out of the streams where your children play?
I would. And a new poll finds that about two thirds of my neighbors would, too. Sixty-four percent of Marylanders say they are willing to pay more into the state’s Bay Restoration Fund (also known as the “flush-fee”) to finish upgrading sewage treatment plants and reduce stormwater pollution into the Chesapeake, according to a December 11-15 poll of 801 Maryland residents by Opinion Works Research and Communications of Annapolis.
Right now, the “flush fee” is $2.50 per household per month. The fund, created by the Maryland General Assembly in 2004, has done a tremendous amount to reduce pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, paying to upgrade 23 sewage treatment plants so far. But the fund is now facing a future $385 million shortfall if it is going to meet its mission of improving all 67 major sewage treatment plants across the state, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
On top of this, there is also the problem of stormwater runoff. Cities and counties across the region need to invest in stormwater pollution control projects to meet new Chesapeake Bay pollution limits. These projects (which often look like ditches or ponds filled with plants) filter out oil, antifreeze, pet waste, and other pollutants that are washed by rain off of roads, parking lots and yards. This type of runoff can be seen vividly in the NASA satellite image of the Bay after a rain storm, shown at top.
Building these stormwater control projects to meet Bay pollution limits is expected to create 178,000 construction jobs, according to a new Chesapeake Bay Foundation report. But still, for these construction workers to start working, polluters (that means me and you) need to pay our fair share for cleaning up our waste.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, to his credit, unveiled a proposed budget yesterday that would double the Bay Restoration Fund. (Residents on septic systems would see their monthly "flush fee" double from $2.50 to $5, according to The Baltimore Sun. Customers on metered water systems would pay a rate based on usage — meaning some would see their fee double and others could actually pay less.)
This is a good start, because this increase is absolutely needed for clean water. But even one of Governor O’Malley’s own advisory comittees, the “Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal” last year advised that a tripling of the “flush fee” would be necessary.
And, truth be told, even a tripling might not be enough. A coalition of environmental groups in the Clean Water, Healthy Families Coalition (including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation) is urging the governor and Maryland General Assembly to be even more realistic still about the investments that will be necessary to clean up the Bay and restore the region’s Bay-related economy.
“We urge lawmakers and the Administration to put in place additional funding for runoff treatment, either through a larger increase in the flush fee, or the establishment of a required stormwater utility fee,” said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's new Maryland Executive Director, Alison Prost.
“We have made progress,” Prost said. “But closed swimming beaches, dead zones, and other signs indicate the Chesapeake Bay still is a system dangerously out of balance.”
Even if the "flush fee" were quadrupled, we'd still only be talking about an additonal $7.50 per month per household to finish the job of cleaning up the Bay. Think of it as investing the money you might have spent on one sandwhich and Coke at Subway on creating jobs for local construction workers, so they can keep sewage and filth off of you or your child when you swim. That's not too much.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation