The following op-ed first appeared in delmarvanow.com earlier this week.
We all need clean water—to drink, play in, and to support good fishing and crabbing. A stormwater utility fee is a new way to pay for an old problem: cleaning up water fouled by polluted runoff.
It's also a better way, say residents in Berlin, Centreville, and more than 1,400 communities nationwide that voluntarily have established the fees. A stormwater fee can't be used for other government needs, only for specific improvements in the pipes and ponds that drain our runoff. Salisbury and Oxford are considering such fees.
Urban and suburban polluted runoff is the only major source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay that is growing. That hurts our pocketbooks and those of our children, because it's more expensive to clean up pollution later. In some neighborhoods, it also can lead to major flooding problems.
Rain washes off our city and suburban landscapes, picking up dog waste, fertilizer, trash, oil, and other contaminants. This is polluted runoff, sometimes called stormwater. Unlike sewage, it generally isn't treated. It flushes directly into our local creeks and rivers. For decades we built our housing developments and commercial districts without much thought to this pollution.
About 20 percent of the nitrogen pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay from Wicomico County is from urban and suburban stormwater. In the bigger suburbs and cities of Maryland runoff makes up a significantly larger part of the problem.
Historically, local governments have used general tax revenues to maintain and upgrade the stormwater system. But it's rarely enough, especially in tough budget years when many local governments raid those funds to spend them elsewhere.
The independent Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland did an extensive study of Salisbury's polluted runoff problem and recommended a stormwater utility fee of adequate size. The city needs about $23 million in the next 10 years to solve its runoff problem, the center determined.
If a government approves an adequate fee, residents can expect to see steady improvement in local creeks and rivers. Inadequate fees can be squandered in administrative expenses. During the last few years, the city of Salisbury, Wicomico Environmental Trust and others have identified specific clean water projects that could be paid for with an adequate stormwater fee. When funded, those efforts should produce concrete results: less flooding, improved quality of life for local residents, and cleaner water flowing into the Wicomico River.
And ironically, this local investment now would make the job of fixing the problem cheaper in the long run. Federal, state, and private grants are available to local governments that can match those funds. In short, some dedicated local revenue leverages more money from other sources.
No one likes a new fee. But just as we invest in our sewer and water systems to ensure a healthy city environment, so we must improve the drainage systems that cause flooding and water pollution.
We're not going to find the needed money under the sofa cushions. Let's join Berlin, Centreville, and other communities for cleaner water and a brighter future.
CBF's Director of Eastern Shore of Maryland