By Barry Rascovar / May 24, 2014
Conservative politicians, especially Republicans, are having a field day deriding the stormwater runoff fee mandated last year by the Maryland General Assembly. Local Baltimore-Washington governments must set fee schedules by July 1. Whoever first attached the derisive moniker “rain tax” to the stormwater levy deserves a gold star from Propaganda Addicts Anonymous.
The phrase stuck like crazy glue. It has come to symbolize — in a gross distortion — the overreach of an oppressive, heavily intrusive government in the Annapolis State House. “Now they’re even taxing the rain!” is the way those in the no-tax crowd describe the situation.
What a great slogan for spinning the story. No tax is a good tax in the eyes of these neo-Republicans, but a tax on rain? How ludicrous.
Never mind that the levy makes eminent sense. Polluted water running off non-absorbing services — like driveways, roofs, roads, and parking lots — contribute mightily to today’s pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, one of the world’s most valuable estuaries.
Truth be told, a tax on impervious surfaces should have been put in place decades ago. It’s so obvious that this dirty runoff, chock full of nitrogen, phosphorus and other harmful chemicals, needs to be treated before reaching the bay.
That’s going to cost a pretty penny, which is compounded by Maryland’s late start. The Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup plan comes in at nearly $15 billion with the states footing a large share of the bill.
As much as opponents mock the “rain tax,” they haven’t proposed an alternative. Ignore the problem? Let the Chesapeake slowly turn into a massive “dead zone”? Pollution remedies are not cheap. Some taxes are necessary and inevitable.
Unfortunately, too many local leaders are imposing large and sometimes onerous fees on businesses with industrial and commercial property containing lots of impervious surface. That could drive companies to other subdivisions with cheaper fees.
Things could get far worse in the ten Maryland counties implementing stormwater runoff fees. Indeed, these levies could mount in future years due to flawed scientific data affecting another aspect of the Chesapeake cleanup.
It turns out the EPA may have been dead wrong in blaming farmers, especially poultry farmers, for much of the bay’s pollution problems. A study conducted by two University of Delaware professors and a University of Maryland poultry specialist found the EPA’s computer models for determining Chesapeake pollutants decades out of date.
Bad science leads to bad results. In this case, the study showed actual phosphorous pollution from poultry manure in one Delaware county (Sussex) was less than half the EPA figure. Nitrogen pollution was 38 percent of the EPA number and total chicken manure produced turned out to be just one-fifth of the EPA figure.
These are huge differences. The EPA could be wildly overestimating the extent to which poultry farmers pollute bay waters. The professors, led by James Glancey, studied thousands of manure tests and recent shipment logs rather than relying on old EPA data from the 1980s.
Even though the potentially landmark study has not yet been peer reviewed or published, an EPA work group and state environmental officials may move quickly to modernize the bay’s computer models. Glancey’s results are hard to refute because they flow from current data.
This could mean reduced emphasis on new regulations to rein in pollutants from Delmarva farms and far greater emphasis on the obvious major contributor, suburban and urban water pollution sources.
If that, indeed, is the case, the derided “rain tax” may need to be increased consistently in future years.
After a heavy storm, visit Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor and look at what flows into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River from the Jones Falls. It’s not pretty.
Cleaning up this mess, and others like it in the Chesapeake catchment area, will take a long time and a lot more dollars from the “rain tax.”