Focusing on the wrong threat to the bay

Dozens of Maryland taxes have been increased during the six years that Martin O'Malley has been governor, but perhaps none better epitomizes the state's propensity to raise taxes for the sake of it than the stormwater management fees — better known as the "rain tax" — that went into effect for residents of the state's 10 largest counties and Baltimore City on Monday.

The idea is to lower Maryland's stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay as required by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its bay cleanup plan. The problem is it is projected to cost a lot of money, $14.8 billion by 2025. Of the six states covered by the EPA mandate, only Maryland has established such a draconian tax. Impervious surfaces like rooftops, driveways and parking lots get hit.

Saving the Chesapeake Bay is an idea that most Marylanders support. They love its bounty, like sweet, succulent blue crabs, oysters and rockfish. There is nothing like picking and feasting on those delicious crabs in summer.

But the rain tax will do little to affect water quality in the bay since it doesn't address what many believe is the estuary's most significant issue. The Conowingo Dam was built in 1928 as part of a hydro-electric power project and is still a working unit, now owned by Exelon. The dam is located where the Susquehanna River empties into the bay, a mere 10 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Upon completion, the water behind the dam was about 120 feet deep. Nearly a century later, it is filled with sludge from the northern states in the Susquehanna Watershed, leaving only 15 to 20 feet of water on top.

The dam leaks through rocks underneath and overflows during heavy rains, pushing sediment and other bad stuff into the bay. It clouds the water and smothers grasses. The Susquehanna contributes 27 percent of the sediment, 41 percent of nitrogen and 25 percent of phosphorus in the bay. By comparison, mitigating the pollution from stormwater runoff in the 10 jurisdictions would render minuscule results.

Shipping channels to Baltimore's harbor are dredged regularly to the tune of an estimated $1 billion every decade. Much of the dredged sediment is from the northern part of the bay and came through the Conowingo Dam.

People are going to get hurt by this tax. As many as 15,000 jobs are threatened by the estimated $14.8 billion total cost. Mike the fireman, Joe the carpenter and Sally the retailer could see less work, fewer hours, less pay or even permanent job loss, even as consumer prices rise. Is the people-cost worth it for such a questionable gain?

The Chesapeake Bay faces threats, to be sure. Sewage pipes continue to have underground leaks, but that isn't addressed by the rain tax. Baltimore City has a lot of work to do upgrading water pipes built in the 1800s, but that isn't addressed by the rain tax. Environmental non-profits will be eligible to receive grants in unspecified amounts for educating citizens about tree planting, rain gardens and rain barrels, but experience suggests that these groups spend a lot of taxpayer money lobbying for even more taxes.

Maryland already has instituted a so-called flush tax to improve sewage facilities in the last decade and raised it under Governor O'Malley. Decades of stormwater management and builder regulations have added thousands to the cost of new homes. Septic system regulation has limited home building and harmed property rights. Ironically, homes on septic systems have well water a few feet away that families drink. Farmers plant cover crops and have established costly precautions to limit their animals' excrement from getting into streams. Chicken raising is far more costly for the same reasons, even to the point of driving some of this business out of state.

The real problem is that every level of government from the federal EPA to the state and counties continues to impose huge costs on residents while turning a blind eye to what is really significant and seriously damaging to the environment. In this case, that's the need for dredging the sludge behind the Conowingo.

A group of Maryland counties, the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, has recently filed a motion to intervene with the EPA regarding the stormwater management requirements and is seeking to focus efforts on the Conowingo. Legal results will take time. Some embarrassed legislators, knowing that public anger may affect their re-election chances next year, want to revisit the tax in the next state legislative session. But in the meantime, the tax bills are going out.

Dee Hodges is president of the Maryland Taxpayers Association. Her email is mdtaxes@comcast.net.