Stormwater fee set low in Harford the best of a bad situation [Editorial]


For decades in Maryland many things have been done in the name of saving the Chesapeake Bay, but the degree to which tangible progress has been made is something of a disappointment.

To be sure, there have been some successes. The mid-1980s ban on catching rockfish in an effort to allow the Chesapeake stock of the state fish to make a recovery has resulted in reasonably healthy stocks of the fish being available for watermen and sport anglers alike these days. Substantially stricter regulation of blue crab harvests seem to have helped avert a rockfish-like population collapse in Maryland's signature table fare.

Beyond that, full on success stories are harder to come by. The ban on allowing boaters to flush their toilets into the bay eliminated a yuck factor swimmers had previously been subjected to, but the degree to which the overall health of the bay has improved is hard to gauge.

Development restrictions designed to protect a so-called environmentally sensitive "critical area" within 1,000 feet of the high tide mark have been in place since 1988. Sewage treatment plants have been upgraded and expanded plenty since the 1970s. There is a much greater public awareness, at least in Maryland, that dumping things like paint and motor oil in storm drains is the same thing as dumping such pollutants directly into the bay.

Yet, on the whole, the most optimistic reports on bay health seem to indicate the waterway is barely holding its ground, or maybe that the pace of deterioration has only been slowed. Each summer there are reports about the expanding size of the bay's oxygen depleted "dead zone." Each autumn, the status of vital Chesapeake aquatic grass beds are reported, and rarely are the grassy areas on par with what is believed to be a healthy state. And the estuary's once legendary oyster beds are but ghosts of what they were in the early to mid 1900s.

Given the effort and money that has gone into sewage treatment upgrades, critical areas development restrictions and shifting public attitudes about flushing boat toilets and used motor oil directly into the bay, it's easy to be more than a little fatigued when things like the so-called "flush tax" and the new stormwater management fee, which has been tagged in certain circles as the "rain tax" are touted as bay saving initiatives.

There's a measure of logic behind both the flush tax and the rain tax, namely that it takes money to fix those things that sap the health of the bay. The most pressing issues are nutrient pollutants that feed algae blooms, which, in turn die and rot, and in rotting, they deplete bay oxygen, creating dead zones. Nutrient pollution comes from flushing toilets and the runoff after heavy rains. Presumably, taxes on flushing and the kinds of development that promote runoff could be used to counteract the effects of these sources of nutrient pollution.

A big problem with the flush tax, however, is that while a lot of money has been collected over a span of several years, the health of the bay doesn't appear to have improved much more than would have been the case had a few hundred more "Save the Bay" bumper stickers been given out. Moreover, there's reason to believe "flush tax" money simply helped pay for sewage treatment plant upgrades and expansions that did little more than clear the way for increased development, putting more strain on the bay's health in the long run.

Onerous as the flush tax was when it was enacted, if, after a few years, a discernible improvement in bay health could have been reported, it would be relatively easy to grudgingly accept it.

As it stands, though, not only was the flush tax not enough, now comes the stormwater fee, which is levied as a state requirement, but by each county. Presumably, it will generate money to help prevent stormwater laden with pet waste and lawn fertilizer from continuing to enter the bay with each strong storm. Unfortunately, given the effect the flush tax has had on bay health, it's a bit too easy to be cynical about the likely effects of the new stormwater fee.

What was approved last week in Harford County, a stormwater fee that has been scaled back to $12.50 a year per home, from the original warning by the county executive's task forced that it could be in the $400 range, seems to be a very reasonable approach to this fee fiasco. The county council technically is levying a $125 a year fee, but is requiring payment of just 10 percent of that total until a study group returns with specific recommendations about how all this money will be used in furtherance of the goal of improving the bay's health.

The study group would do well to find out what can be done to effectively filter stormwater before it enters the bay, how much it will cost, and how long it will take to accomplish, then set a fee accordingly.

Come to think of it, the state legislature and governor should have answered these questions before requiring the fee. If our state officials had done these things instead of passing the buck to the locals, not only might there be more faith in efforts to fund bay clean up projects, those projects might actually start to show more results.

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