Why do Maryland counties need stormwater pollution control fees? The new fees are required by a 2012 state law meant to protect the Chesapeake Bay from toxic runoff from parking lots, roads, and developments.
But beyond this legal mandate –- which the state’s nine largest counties and Baltimore City must follow by July 1 -– there is also a lesser-known consideration. Some counties lack not only the physical infrastructure to control stormwater; they also lack the staff to inspect the filtration systems and make sure they are maintained and function.
Anne Arundel County is a good example. State law requires the county to inspect each of its more than 11,000 stormwater control systems at least once every three years. But the county has been failing to meet that requirement for at least a decade, according to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years ago, EPA fined the county $75,100 for “failing to conduct preventative maintenance inspections” as required in the state’s stormwater control permit for the county.
How did the county find itself in this position?
“Unfortunately, back in 2001, the county executive made the decision to reduce the stormwater inspection staff from seven full-time inspectors to one, which is what it remains today,” said Richard Klein, (above) former director of a stream protection program at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources who now directs an environmental consulting firm called Community and Environmental Defense Services.
“One inspector can visit about 1,000 of these sites in a year,” Klein said, during a recent tour of stormwater control systems in Anne Arundel County. “There are 11,000 of these in Anne Arundel County. So what we are seeing is the result of a stormwater inspection staff that is severely understaffed.”
The result is that old stormwater systems are often neglected, Klein said. When these sites are not inspected, they often get clogged with silt, garbage, and weeds, so they stop filtering runoff.
To provide an illustration for this neglect, Klein drove into a parking lot in Odenton. He hopped out of his car behind a low-slung office building and pointed to a stormwater pollution control device called a “rain garden” that was built several years ago.
It’s a shallow depression filled with shrubs and plants that are designed to catch and filter toxic runoff from the parking lot. Unfortunately, someone –- perhaps landscapers -- dumped a chest-high mountain of mulch on top of the rain garden, filling in the basin and killing the plants. (Photo of problem at top of article).
“This is a rain garden, a.k.a. bio-retention area, that is no longer working,” Klein said.
In the fall of 2011, Klein performed a survey for the Severn River Association that found 43 percent (13 of 30) of the rain gardens he examined in the Severn River watershed were failing, along with 88 percent (7 of 8) of the infiltration (stormwater control) basins.
Across the Chesapeake Bay region, there are between 50,000 and 100,000 stormwater pollution control systems -– perhaps a third of which are not working properly because they are not maintained, according to an estimate by Tom Schueler, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Stormwater Network.
"Stormwater maintanence has always been a difficult issue in all the Bay states,” said Schueler, who advises the Chesapeake Bay Program and Bay region states on stormwater issues. “It’s like anything else. You wouldn’t build a wastewater treatment plant, and then not maintain it.”
Schueler added, however, that while stormwater system maintenance is a “real problem,” it is also a real opportunity. This is because simple improvements to older stormwater systems are some of the most cost-effective ways to reduce stormwater pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, Schueler said. To watch a Chesapeake Stormwater Network video about the maintenance issue, click here.
The Arundel County Council is scheduled for a final vote on its proposed stormwater control fee on June 17. After a veto and override, the council modified its proposed fee legislation, which was originally set for $85 per year for an average home. Now the proposed fees will be phased in, with $51 for an average home in the county in the first year; $68 in the second year; and then $85 annually in years three and later.
The $22 million raised by the fee every year (after year three) should allow the county to solve its inspection staffing problem, said Chris Phipps, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Engineering with the Anne Arundel County Public Works Department. The extra revenue should allow the department to quadruple its inspection staff, from one to four, Phipps said.
“With the fund, it will provide us with the resource level to hire additional staff, inspectors, to go out and do those triennial inspections, so we can -- most importantly -- be compliant with our permit,” Phipps said.
In addition to hiring staff, Anne Arundel County will also rebuild older stormwater systems, and restore suburban streams, to reduce erosion and improve habitat for fish and wildlife, Phipps said. Over the next five years, the county will be working to reduce the amount of blacktop and roofs by 20 percent, or treat an equivalent amount of runoff pollution.
Anne Arundel County is a prime example of why stormwater control fees are badly needed across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Improvements like Anne Arundel’s will keep tons of pollution out of the Chesapeake Bay, helping jurisdictions meet EPA pollution limits and the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Anne Arundel County officials project that the county will reduce its stormwater pollution by about third over the next 12 years, Phipps said. That will mean 200,000 pounds less nitrogen pollution every year flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation