Monday, November 19, 2007

A Proposal to restore our creeks and rivers

Last week Councilmembers Ron Dillon, Jamie Benoit and I drove to a quiet neighborhood in Glen Burnie to hold a press conference. Later in this post I will discuss our proposed amendment to Bill 76-07, the subject of the press conference. But first, here is what we found.

When we arrived, our group of a dozen or so activists, reporters and politicians parked our cars on Darcy Road, a short dead-end street with four houses, and walked to the end of the street. We stepped over a storm drain inlet in the curb and headed past the spacious backyards to our right. Soon we came to an undisturbed wooded area. Our shoes crunched over the branches, vines and fallen leaves beneath us. Just a short distance more and we reached our destination. (Click here for a location map).

Cutting through the heart of this wooded area was a deep gully, about ten feet deep and 12 feet wide. Trash and debris littered the ground on the bottom. We had intended to stand in the gully to hold the press conference, but our plans changed when we saw that there was no easy way to get down the steep, near-vertical drop of the gully walls. So we held the conference on the solid ground above.

What had created this severe chasm in the middle of this natural area? There was nothing in the natural landscape to cause it -- no steep hills or rushing streams. We were surrounded by single-family homes on comfortable lots with plenty of green space around. No parking lots, shopping centers, or high-rise office buildings were in sight.

We backtracked and followed the gully to its source: a simple storm drain pipe, half-clogged with dirt and debris. Could that one storm drain pipe really have created this gully?

The houses on Darcy Road were built 30 years ago in 1977 and 1978. The storm drain system was probably installed at that time. What is now the large gully was doubtless just a shallow drainage ditch at the time.

So what happened during the past 30 years? The answer has played out hundreds of times in similar neighborhoods across the county:

After every rainfall the water would flow from the road into the storm drain inlet, then out of the end of the pipe 100 feet away. The water brought with it not just litter but various chemicals it had picked up along the way: automobile oil, gasoline, paint chips, worn tire rubber, even lawn fertilizer. With nothing to slow it down, the water gained momentum as it went. By the time it shot out of the pipe into the drainage ditch, it had built up so much velocity that it gradually eroded away the soil.

This process repeated week after week, year after year, until the shallow drainage ditch had expanded into the steep gully we saw last week.

The problem is huge

Anne Arundel County has more shoreline than any other county in Maryland -- 530 miles of it. Take a minute to reflect on the size of that. If we were to take our shoreline and stretch it out into a straight line, it would reach from Annapolis to Charleston, South Carolina. And almost every one of our rivers and creeks is home to development and to gullies like the one off of Darcy Road.

The cumulative impact of all of this development is by now a familiar refrain: severely eroded creeks and rivers; unsafe water that sends people to the Emergency Room after only casual contact; catfish with cancerous lesions; dead zones with no fish or crabs at all; and not a single river that meets federal Clean Water Act Standards.

Fortunately, we know how to solve the problem. Our shortcoming is not lack of knowledge, it is the lack of political will and resources.

The solution has two parts. The first part is to replace the old stormwater infrastructure with more modern methods such as rain gardens, sand filters and infiltration trenches. The second part is to rebuild and restore the damaged streams to recreate their natural function.

The Department of Public Works estimates that the cost to restore our damaged waterways is more than $1 billion -- that's billion with a "b". The problem is so large that it won't be solved with baby steps. We need a new, substantial funding source to tackle the problem.

The "SMART Fund"

County Executive John Leopold has introduced a bill to raise new funds to address this stormwater problem. Bill No. 76-07 would create a new county fund called the SMART Fund, which stands for "Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries." Moneys raised would be used only for defined purposes such as stream restoration and water quality programs.

The bill would generate revenue by adding a new fee to any building or grading permit that creates more than 150 square feet of new impervious surface on a property. The bill would charge 25 cents per square foot for grading permits and 15 cents per square foot for building permits. These fees are projected to raise $5 million annually.

I applaud the County Executive for taking the initiative to introduce this bill. It is a step in the right direction because it acknowledges the critical role that county government must play to solve the problem.

However, while the proposed SMART Fund has merit, in my view it falls short in two key respects. First, the estimated $5 million revenue is inadequate and will barely make a dent in the backlog. Second, it holds future development responsible for fixing the damage caused by existing development. This approach will compound our county's affordable housing problem by making new development even less affordable. In fact, new development is not the problem because it must meet much stricter stormwater standards. Our problem has caused by the decades of existing development that's already here.

A better way

Ron Dillon, Jamie Benoit and I held the press conference last week to announce details of an amendment we are introducing at tonight's County Council meeting. The amendment retains the SMART Fund's purpose and uses, but establishes a fairer and more equitable funding stream.

The three main points of our proposal are as follows:

  1. It applies to all developed properties (instead of to future development only);
  2. It is projected to generate $10 to $11 million annually, double the amount proposed in the current bill; and,
  3. Despite raising more money overall, the base rate of $30 per household is still reasonable enough that it will avoid breaking the budget for families and small business owners.
Our amendment will assess an annual flat fee of $30 on all improved residential properties. This rate comes to $2.50 per month which is the same amount as the State's Bay Restoration fee (dubbed "flush tax") enacted by former Governor Ehrlich.

Commercial, institutional and industrial properties will pay a sliding scale of $30 for every 2,500 square feet of impervious surface. Therefore the amount paid will be directly proportional to the amount of impervious surface on the property: a small business with 1/4 acre of impervious surface will pay $150 per year; a larger facility with 5 acres of impervious surface will pay $2,640. The proportional fee structure creates a built-in incentive for property owners to reduce their impervious surface by installing stormwater methods such as rain gardens.

Other aspects of the proposal:
  • Families that make $35,000 or less per year qualify for a waiver.
  • The fee will be capped at $25,000 per property per year. (Only a handful of properties will even reach this cap. A property will need more than 2 million square feet of impervious surface to reach a fee of $25,000.)
  • Properties in the City of Annapolis are excluded because Annapolis already has its own stormwater utility fund.
  • The Department of Public Works will hold an annual public hearing to receive input on its priority list of stormwater projects. It will report annually to the council how it spent the money the preceding year and what its priority projects are for the upcoming year.
The bottom line

All of us have a stake in restoring the Bay and its tributaries. Our reasons may be personal because we boat, fish, crab or swim in Bay waters. We may just want the peace of mind to know that the rockfish we eat is healthy. Our reasons may be economic because we recognize the value of the Bay to our economy. The maritime industry pumped $400 million into Anne Arundel's economy in the year 2000 alone. Or our reason may be a moral one: it is simply our moral obligation.

For me this whole stormwater debate comes down to personal responsibility. Whether we choose to accept it or not, individually and collectively, we all are responsible for our actions.

The choice we are offered in this debate is whether to accept responsibility for the damage we have caused, or to deny it and push it off onto future generations. In my view, there is no choice. It is a basic obligation of public servants and citizens alike to be responsible stewards of the natural resources with which we are entrusted. We owe this to the generations who will inherit what we have done.

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