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This Week's Take: Stormwater Fee Will Help Our Rivers

The following originally appeared this weekend in The Capital.

Schlyer-cbr-8488Photo by © Krista Schlyer/iLCP.

The health of our local rivers—the Magothy, Severn, South, West, and Rhode—is a reflection of the care that we take of them.

The sewage treatment upgrades that we pay for in the "flush fee" have brought valuable improvement in water quality in the last 10 years. But now we have an opportunity to care for our rivers in another way.

When our children who swim in our rivers get ear infections and intestinal bugs, or when we have to clean smelly, brown bathtub rings of algae scum off our boats' waterlines, or when our boats' fishfinders show fish suspended above the bottom to avoid oxygen-starved "dead zones," where has that pollution come from?

As with sewage, the answer is ourselves. It comes from stormwater, rainwater runoff from "impervious surfaces"—the roadways, rooftops, and parking lots of our suburban communities.

This problem isn't one we've created intentionally. Over the past century, we have gradually replaced Anne Arundel's natural pollution treatment systems—woodlands, wetlands and stream floodplains—with pollution accelerators—storm drains, culverts and pipes that speed up the flow of rainwater to the county's streams, creeks, and rivers.

That fast-moving water scours everything in its path, from sediment off a construction site to lawn fertilizer to dog poop that an owner didn't pick up.

This pollution has been sneaking up on us for many years. Who thinks about storm drains? They're out of sight, out of mind.

But now stormwater pollution is serious enough that we have to pay attention to it. It creates public health problems, damages our waterways as habitat for fish and crabs, devalues our land, and causes flooding.

And because we have neglected it for so long, reducing it now may cause some sticker shock over the next 12 years. And yes, by federal law, we have to face up to it.

So what to do? Civil engineers and landscape architects are working out promising new, less costly, and more natural techniques, sometimes called "green infrastructure," to turn the pollution accelerators back into natural treatment systems, and contractors are learning to use them effectively.

We're fortunate in this county to have a Department of Public Works that has both the expertise and the commitment to reverse the trend and reduce stormwater pollution. Moreover, a recent study by the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland indicates that the work will generate private-sector jobs and valuable economic activity.

Clean water, jobs and economic activity. Sounds like a winner. How much would you pay for this pollution-reducing program?

That's a challenge that a task force of County Council members, business leaders, and environmentalists took on last summer. The result is County Bill 02-13, the Stormwater Management—Watershed Protection and Restoration Special Fund and Program.

The bill would create an annual residential stormwater fee ($85 for most households, $34 for townhouses, $170 for rural homes, and businesses and non-profits paying according to the extent of their impervious surfaces). That's about $7 per month, or a couple of lattes, invested in cleaner waters and healthier Anne Arundel rivers. By law, the county cannot use this fund for anything but reducing stormwater pollution, and it will provide enough to get the job done.

Wouldn't it be great if we could swim and eat fish and crabs from our rivers without worrying about getting sick? It surely would be for me. If you agree, call or e-mail your County Council representative and ask that he vote Aye on Bill No. 02-13.

John Page Williams
CBF's Senior Naturalist and Arnold Resident 

Learn more about the harmful effects of stormwater on our website here.


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