Stormwater woes reach tipping point

Three plans debated at local level; state considers others


By ERIN COX, Staff Writer
Published October 21, 2007

On bad days, when the rain falls in sheets, the West River looks like a giant cappuccino. The rain spills off rooftops, slushes over driveways and barrels down embankments into the river, carrying dirt and pollutants and whipping the water into brown muck.

"The water looks like it's been in a fight with Starbucks," Riverkeeper Bob Gallagher said as he slowly boated through the watershed Friday, illustrating the havoc stormwater wreaks on the Chesapeake Bay.

"It's not that rain is a bad thing," Mr. Gallagher explains. "It's what happens to it that's a problem."

Uncontrolled stormwater has been linked to nearly every environmental concern of the Chesapeake Bay - oysters smothered by sediment, dead bay grasses deprived of sunlight, the more frequent and furious algae blooms that die, decompose and drop the oxygen levels enough to choke fish.

Each of the county's 12 watersheds fail federal Clean Water Act standards; each with at least four categories of pollutants suspended in the waterways.

Then there's the accelerated erosion of stream beds. The quick-running water steals inches from the county's 530 miles of shoreline a year, destroying waterfront and clogging creeks enough for boats to run aground.

Few if any public leaders deny the Chesapeake needs help. Politicians have debated fixes for at least a decade, and the bay continues to degrade.

However, recent efforts from state and particularly local politicians have given hope to environmentalists, such as Mr. Gallagher, that a solution may soon arrive.

"There seems to be a swing in the pendulum," Mr. Gallagher said. "We're at a critical point ... in the next 5 to 10 years, we're going to know whether we can save the bay or whether it's beyond repair."

Activists and environmentalists have lobbied for across-the-board fees to repair damaged streams and fix the causes of stormwater problems, which stem from any change to the natural landscape that prevents water from soaking into the ground.

Centuries of development has created 45,000 acres of surfaces impervious to rain, about 18 percent of all land in Anne Arundel County, plus converted thousands more to agricultural uses that cause higher levels of sediment and pollutants to flow into waterways.

Old models to deal with the gushing water from storms were built around the now-defunct theory that quickly collecting and whisking away rainwater caused the fewest problems. Engineers fighting erosion and sediment pollution now believe the stormwater must be trapped, cleansed and treated before being released into the bay.

Development regulations and the Stormwater Act of 2007 require new projects to use better technology, but existing neighborhoods and businesses cause the largest contribution to the stromwater problem and present the largest costs to fixing it.

County engineers estimate that remedying every source of stormwater pollution and cleaning contaminated waterways would cost $5 billion.

Summoning those funds has dominated the county's political agenda for weeks. The debate over who to charge and how much to charge them recently gained traction in the County Council, where three proposals have emerged to stop stormwater problems.

One offers $2,500 in tax breaks for cutting contributions to stormwater pollution.

Another plan charges every home $25 and every commercial property $100 a year to fund restoration projects.

A third proposal sets a fee for creating new surfaces impervious to water.

The tax-incentive plan by Councilwoman Cathy Vitale, R-Severna Park, appears to be gaining the most momentum, having garnered support from her colleagues, tentative approval from County Executive John R. Leopold, and a nod from the business community.

Her plan would provide the tax break for five years, earned by installing a list of improved stormwater management control mechanisms including green roofs that absorb stormwater, porous pavement that allows rain to pass through it and filters that treat stormwater before it funnels into gutters.

'The idea (is) that there's a benefit to go the extra mile,' Ms. Vitale said.

But Ms. Vitale agrees that the incentives are not enough to solve the entire problem.

Nor is the $25 per house fee, pushed by a bi-partisan trio of councilmen who say they must revamp the plan in order to raise more money. Initial estimates showed it generated only $4.6 million, slightly less than Mr. Leopold's impervious surface plan that has been widely criticized for doing too little to combat a problem with a price tag in the billions.

Fixing existing damage alone would cost $1.3 billion.

The flat, $25-fee plan "was admittedly an imperfect one," said County Councilman Jamie Benoit, one of the three councilman who suggested it. "We did it to push the agenda forward and to keep the conversation going."

Mr. Benoit, D-Crownsville, joined by cosponsors Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis and Council Chairman Ron Dillon, R-Pasadena, said they intend to rewrite their proposal in a way that ensures the Annapolis mall pays more for its parking lots than a small, used-car dealership shop in Pasadena.

The fight for more dollars for stormwater has extended to the state level, where legislators are scheduled to debate a plan to charge the average home about $20 a year and establish a "Green Fund" to restore damaged waterways.

Whichever solution emerges, the intensified political discussion is a victory for Anne Pearson.

From her Woodland Beach home cluttered with environmental data, maps and stormwater magazines, Ms. Pearson has launched a decade-long advocacy campaign that has earned her awards from city, county and state leaders.

She keeps manila files of data and power point presentations, plus folding backdrops of successful projects on hand in case she need to do an impromptu education session.

Her efforts convinced George White of Crofton to dig a crescent-shaped groove in his front yard to trap rain water and help solve the problem.

"It just made sense to me that you could do something like this pretty simply and feel like part of the community and part of the effort," Mr. White said.

Ms. Pearson, though proud of what she's done so far, says the community needs to open their wallets and help. Without $30 million a year to repair streams, Anne Arundel County will not keep pace with the new stormwater pollution being created.

And convincing taxpayers to part with some of their incomes remains a challenge.

"You'll always have people who don't want to take responsibility for what they think the government should be doing," she said. "But we are the government."

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ecox@capitalgazette.com

(Revised Oct 2007)