Our Say: 'Flush fee' funds one area where state got it right

The Capital, 09/01/09

There is a lot to be said about the challenges of finding a popular consumer product. On one hand, it's terribly frustrating to find it sold out. On the other, scarcity is a sign of success for its manufacturer.

Perhaps the same can be said for the state's "flush fee," the tax introduced during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Residents have been willing to pay $30 a year to improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

But the money collected has been in hot demand. Farmers have been applying for grants to grow cover crops on their fields in the winter - the temporary growth prevents harmful nutrients from entering rivers and creeks until crops are replanted in the spring. Homeowners finally have been lining up to seek money to upgrade their septic systems and local government wants money to improve sewage treatment plants.

Although these competing interests have been difficult for the state to manage, the money has been a godsend to keeping destructive nutrients out of the bay. Instead of putting money into more useless studies, these funds are actually doing something to help water quality in the bay.

In Anne Arundel County, homeowners have been patiently waiting their turn to get $10,000 to $13,000 to add nitrogen-reducing technology to their septic systems. The equipment can reduce nitrogen by half.

Unfortunately, the county health department has run out of money after giving assistance to 117 homeowners since 2007. What a change - the program got off to such a slow start the county once had to ask for more time to spend its $2.6 million share of flush fee money.

The program is on hold here, but hopefully not for long. County health officials say another infusion of money this fall will fund 67 approved projects - and more yet to be approved.

Part of the problem has been a shift in priorities. The state has given more money to farmers to plant cover crops. It is hard to argue their decision - if 330,000 acres are covered this year, as expected, nitrogen will be reduced by 1.6 million pounds a year. Phosphorus will be reduced by 66,100 pounds. That's a big dent in nitrogen compared to the 15,000 pounds reduced with 1,000 septic system upgrades.

Officials estimate that 240 septic tanks fail in Critical Areas every year, so the need for state assistance is no less today than it was when the fund was created. Failing systems, especially those on waterfront property, get priority. But we hope there will be money to help other homeowners with operable septic systems who simply want to do something to improve the bay.

The program has done more for the bay than anything else in recent years. This time the state got it right.

(Revised September 2009)