Stormwater management was the focus of the Chesapeake Bay Commission at its quarterly meeting, held last week in Alexandria. The Commission is a tri-state legislative assembly (Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania) created in 1980. Its members are senators and delegates from the three states, plus the governors and three citizen members. The Commission undertakes research about Bay restoration, which guides possible state legislative actions in the three member states.
The Chesapeake Bay is important, both environmentally and economically, to the 64,000 square mile watershed that extends north into New York, and west into West Virginia. The bay is the nation’s largest estuary, drains thousands of miles of local streams, and supports thousands of jobs, from fishing to manufacturing. One of the challenges to restoration of the bay environment is urban stormwater – polluted runoff from storms that can cause flooding, basement backups, loss of property from stream erosion, and contamination of drinking water supplies.
Many of the bay’s communities are required to have a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit that governs how stormwater is managed. MS4s are negotiated by the state government under direction by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and are very specific about discharges, possible violations, fines, and the like. Local governments often must amend their land use policies to comply with MS4 permits. However, not all of the work being done to restore the bay and sustain clean water is well aligned. Priorities at the federal, state, and local level must be better coordinated and understood. That was my message to the Commission last Friday. We may be local, subject to federal and state regulation, but most of the implementation of clean water infrastructure is done at the local level, and supported by local taxpayers and ratepayers.
That’s why a second part of my message to the Commission was for additional funding. Fairfax County implemented a stormwater fee, collected on county real estate tax bills. The almost three-cent tax rate is constrained, but allows a few more stormwater projects to be accomplished each year. However, the Commonwealth would see more efficient and effective results, especially in smaller jurisdictions, with additional funding from the state. The Governor’s recently announced budget surplus, fortunately, will provide some funding, since state law requires a percentage of the surplus to be put in the Water Quality Improvement Fund which, in turn, can be available for grants to localities.
Long-term costs are challenging. Removing a pound of phosphorus from a local lake or stream costs $16,600. This week’s gold price, per ounce, was about $1100 an ounce, or $17,600 per pound. I doubt anyone would equate phosphorus with gold, but it’s expensive either way. Local stormwater utility fee funding mechanisms must be protected and preserved, free from tampering at the state level. If localities are required by their MS4 permits to build and maintain infrastructure, then localities also need the tools and authority to develop programs, engineer them, finance them, and build them. Otherwise, bay restoration will be doomed to failure – and failure is not an option.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]