Residents will see clear benefits from paying storm water fee

Most people probably wouldn't let their child bathe in a storm drain. Yet allowing him or her to swim or wade in many of the creeks and rivers of Carroll County after a heavy rainstorm is virtually the same thing.

That's because of storm water. It's not an everyday term, storm water. But it's a genuine problem.

Storm water pollution is increasing around the region. Thanks to cooperation between government, business and citizens, water pollution from farms, sewage plants, and other sources has been reduced. Not storm water.

What is storm water? Our suburban and city landscape is covered with all manner of filth and contaminants — dog feces, lawn fertilizer, oil and pesticides to name a few. A storm effectively hoses this mess straight — and fast — into nearby creeks. Unlike sewage, polluted runoff isn't treated. The more parking lots, streets and other hard surfaces, the worse the problem.

This polluted runoff is one of the reasons the federal government officially declared certain waterways in Carroll County "impaired," meaning too polluted for safe recreational uses. Those waters include the Patapsco and Monocacy rivers and Double Pipe Creek.

This is not just a worrisome problem for fish and other stream critters. State environmental officials warn Marylanders not to swim in the state's waterways after a heavy rainstorm because of potentially harmful bacteria in the runoff.

For years, Carroll and other populated counties in Maryland, and the City of Baltimore, have been required by Clean Water Act permits to reduce storm water pollution. Each permit sets out expectations for this cleanup. Carroll has a good program to do so. But clearly it has not done enough, and the county will soon get a new permit which will be much tougher.

The trouble is this is an expensive problem. To fix it, in part, means to go back and retrofit the system of ponds, culverts and pipes that comprise the man-made drainage system.

Thankfully, Carroll isn't alone in this quandary and scientists and entrepreneurs across the country are coming up with cost-effective solutions. One of the solutions is "green infrastructure" that mimics nature to clean polluted runoff. In addition, the state has significantly increased its financial help, including tens of millions of dollars appropriated this year for local projects and technical assistance, help for which CBF pushed hard.

Still, localities need to increase their contribution as well. Last year, the state legislature wisely told counties already possessing storm water permits to raise some kind of fee to help with funding. The size of the fee, and how it is assessed, was left up to the county.

Contrary to what some of the county commissioners allege, the level of funding Carroll County spends on this problem won't be sufficient.

In fact, the most recent review of the county's program by the Maryland Department of the Environment said the county is expected to comply with the state law and raise a fee in order to meet its cleanup responsibilities.

No one likes more fees or taxes, for sure. But this investment will pay off. In Anne Arundel County, which has approved a storm water fee, the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center estimates that for every $100 million the county invests in improvements, the county will gain $220 million in economic benefits and almost 800 jobs.

What's the alternative?

Surely, no one wants to leave a much higher bill for our children to pay down the road, or unhealthy local waters as our legacy.

Alison Prost, Maryland Executive Director

Chesapeake Bay Foundation