Storm water: Pay now and pay later

The longer we wait to deal with water pollution, the higher the cost

March 12, 2010|By Karen Hosler

Remember how this winter's snow, so pretty at first, morphed into gritty, grimy mounds laced with road salt, petroleum products and pet poo?

Want that stuff in your drinking water? It's probably there. How about in the Chesapeake Bay? You can visit it on weekends. And the air you breathe -- well, that's where a lot of the less-visible contaminants came from.

The Mid-Atlantic's record snowfall of 2010 made a powerful, if slow motion, case for curbing the rain that washes off sidewalks, streets and parking lots into the waterways that sustain life.

For those who argue such curbs cost too much, nature is demonstrating that we are already paying a high price for inaction: dangerous chloride levels in underground aquifers. Fisheries choked out of the bay's ever-expanding dead zone. Loss of a swimming and boating culture unfettered by the risk of infection from the water.

Oh, there are some freeloaders -- developers who build, sell, take their profits and move on. They dazzle elected officials with the promise of short-term revenue gains, with no mention of the long-term pain. A tax-averse local citizenry rarely objects.

As testimony to the severity of the current problem, though, the big three states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed -- Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania -- are each trying to mandate ways to hold back the rain.

In Maryland, typically the most progressive of the three, Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration is moving to require water retention devices for both new and make-over developments. At the same time, a renegade band of state legislators has been seeking utility fees to pay for restoring streams and correcting other damage that's already been created.

A powerful pushback from developers on the storm water management regulations resulted in an agreement in recent days that projects roughly halfway through the lengthy review process would be covered under the old rules even after the new ones take effect in May. As for utility fees, advocates have yet to overcome the election-year aversion to anything that smacks of a tax increase.

In Virginia, a similar debate over requiring storm water management techniques has been under way since last year. It's too costly, developers said. We won't make over rotting cities. We'll go instead to bankrupt farm sites, where everything is cheaper.

But there, too, environmentalists struck a deal. A much-compromised manual of storm water management regulations will take effect no later than Dec. 1, 2011 (unless the General Assembly decides differently before then).

Storm water management is also a hot topic in Pennsylvania, where officials are contemplating the first-ever storm water volume controls on development tracts of 1 acre or larger.

But the Keystone State features a government structure of 67 counties and 2,566 municipalities that greatly increases the challenge of coordinated action. There are few if any zoning controls in many of those little cities and towns, which compete with each other for new projects to boost their often-feeble resources. Thus, land there is being gobbled up at a breakneck pace, while Pennsylvania's population is relatively stable.

By contrast with the state as a whole, the city of Philadelphia is a national leader in storm water management. Action there was prompted years ago when runoff into the Schuylkill River posed a clear threat to the city's drinking water, according to Harry Campbell, a local scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. That gave the problem a sense of immediacy that it just doesn't seem to have more broadly in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

It should, though. Remember that dirty snow. Chloride concentrations in major drinking water supplies to Baltimore have increased nearly four-fold over the past two decades, according to a study led by Sujay S. Kaushal of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Similar results have been reported elsewhere in the country. Primary culprits were identified as land-use changes that increased waterproof surfaces, and road de-icer.

So, it was not a good idea that dirty snow got dumped this winter into the Baltimore and Annapolis harbors -- and no doubt into other waterways -- to make the roads passable. But even the snow that simply soaked into the ground took so much road salt and other contaminants along that it will have a degrading effect. We're not getting any free ride by putting off the cost of installing green roofs, rain barrels, retention ponds and other water containment and cleansing techniques. Mother Nature says it's not a question of pay me now or pay me later, but one of pay me now and pay me later. However, the interest rate on inaction is going to rise considerably.

Karen Hosler, a former editorial writer for the Baltimore Sun, is a reporter, commentator and talk show host for 88.1 WYPR. This article is distributed by the Bay Journal News Service.

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