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Photo of the Week: After the Rains

The Truth About the "Rain Tax"

Schlyer-cbr-8482© Krista Schlyer/iLCP

No, Maryland isn't taxing rain.

You undoubtedly have heard the term "rain tax." Fox News started using the term earlier this year.  Local news outlets picked it up. It is a catchy label, but it misrepresents and smears an otherwise praiseworthy state initiative.

I think veteran environmental writer Tom Horton best put the "rain tax" in perspective:

"They might as well call quarterly sewer bills 'a bowel movement tax' or paint the food sales tax as government intrusion in 'swallowing.' So long as water runs downhill and connects 'your' property to 'our' bay, word games won't make the stormwater problem go away." (from the Baltimore Sun, June 24)

Basically, the state is asking residents and businesses in its more populated areas to help solve a serious problem that largely originates with them: urban polluted runoff.

Of all the water pollution problems we face, urban runoff generally is the least understood, and the most expensive to fix. Sure, we've heard that farm manure, fertilizer, and sewage plants pollute the Chesapeake Bay. But another major source is the rain that runs off our parking lots, driveways, roofs, and other hard surfaces.

Around the Bay region, this source of pollution causes about 16 percent of the excess nitrogen in the Bay. But the percent is far higher in many creeks and rivers. The Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works, for instance, found in 2010 that 37 percent of the nitrogen in the Magothy River comes from urban runoff, not to mention 94 percent of the excess phosphorus, and virtually all of the sediment and bacteria pollution.

So it's a major problem, causing real harm. For instance, the state cautions Marylanders not to swim in any natural water for 48 hours after a rain storm because of the unhealthy bacteria carried by runoff. A fresh water stream downstream of Frederick City can be just as polluted by urban runoff as a beach near Annapolis. A child wading into that stream is just as at risk for bacteria infection after a storm.

Urban runoff has been a problem for years. But not enough was done to address it. It's actually getting worse as development continues to sprawl out to our rural areas, and more fields and forests are turned into malls and housing developments.

Baltimore City and the state's nine most populated counties are actually required by federal law to reduce this type of pollution under Clean Water Act permits. Many have made commendable attempts. But the size of the problem far exceeds the resources those localities have used to address it. That's in part because the problem was ignored for so many years.

Enter the Maryland General Assembly in 2012. First, the legislature budgeted tens of millions of dollars to help local governments upgrade their stormwater managements systems. But lawmakers also decided the local jurisdictions needed to contribute themselves. After all, this is a problem that originates in the local areas, and often as the result of local zoning and growth decisions.

So the legislature passed a law saying if you are one of those ten localities in Maryland already required by federal law to reduce stormwater, then you must collect some level of fee dedicated only to this work.

Call it a state mandate if you like. But it was mandated after years of insufficient effort by Baltimore City and the nine urban/suburban counties. And, as Horton points out, it was mandated because "your" property impacts "our" Bay.

The legislation gave wide flexibility to the ten jurisdictions to set the size of the fee, and how it is calculated and collected. The result wasn't surprising: Fees approved by local governments this spring range from $21 to $170 per household per year, and potentially significantly higher for businesses.

The key is local governments decided these amounts, not the state. Some governments opted to charge a flat fee to everyone, regardless of property. But others decided a mall should pay more than a mom-and-pop deli downtown. Remember, the more hard surface, the more polluted runoff comes from a property.

And keep in mind the benefits we will see as local governments start using the new funds to upgrade their stormwater management systems. Montgomery County already started and has created about 3,300 full-time, private sector jobs. Prince George's County estimates it will create about 5,000 jobs. And that's not to mention the obvious: clean water, open beaches, and happy crabs and oysters. 

—Tom Zolper, CBF's Maryland Communications Coordinator

Learn more about how clean water projects described above create jobs in our investigative report: Debunking the "Job Killer" Myth: How Pollution Limits Encourage Jobs in the Chesapeake Bay Region.


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