University researchers weigh in on state ‘rain tax’

By: Brian Compere
Publisher: Council on the Environment
Published: July 9, 2013

New fees went into effect July 1 in order to support Chesapeake Bay restoration projects and discourage practices that lead to heavy storm water runoff, but some university researchers are skeptical of whether this “rain tax” will adequately accomplish these goals.

Storm water runoff creates big problems for the bay, the streams and creeks that make up the bay’s watershed, and the biodiversity of the life in this watery network – that much is certain to Joe Maher and Sujay Kaushal.

When heavy rain falls, slow-flowing streams fill up very quickly and develop high-energy flows that have lasting penalties on the health of the stream, said Maher, an environmental economics Ph.D student in this university’s agricultural and resource economics school. This rapid flow causes erosion along the stream banks and washes away most aquatic life – from big to small to microbial.

Kaushal, an assistant professor at the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, said storm water runoff can further damage streams and the organisms living in them by rapidly warming stream water temperature after rain water runs off hot pavement into the stream on a summer day.

In order to address these issues, the General Assembly passed legislation in 2012 requiring the state’s nine largest counties (in terms of population) and Baltimore City to establish plans to collect money they will then be expected to spend on watershed restoration. The assembly left it up to each of these 10 to determine the details of how to collect these funds, as well as how to spend them.

A Maryland Department on the Environment official said a federal storm water permit requiring restoration work led to the decision of the assembly – which is made up of representatives from the counties –to use local governments to bring the state in accordance with the federal expectations and reduce their Total Maximum Daily Load of water pollutants.

The money raised by these local governments can be spent in a variety of ways, including stream restoration or bioretention projects, education, rain garden installations, or street sweeping. Funds can then be spent on inspection of these projects once completed.

In general, though, the fees are being determined based on the extent of impervious surfaces on properties such as homes, businesses and churches – thus the common nickname of “the rain tax.”

“You can’t leave some of these streams and watersheds that are very old and have been heavily degraded. You can’t just leave them alone. You have to do something.”

-Sujay Kaushal, ESSIC assistant professor

Impervious surfaces – concrete, roofs or any other surface that does not allow rain water to be absorbed into the ground – are the main target of the fees because they divert rain water into single locations for drainage; in doing so, they pour an overwhelming amount of water into the same place at once, leading to what Maher said is a major problem.

“Normally when two different raindrops hit the grass or the soil, one might take two hours to get to the stream, one might take a day to get to the stream, so they’re getting there at different times,” Maher said. “That’s the major problem that comes to storm water-based runoff is that there’s no delay in the time that water hits the ground and the time that it enters into the stream. So when you have a big storm that opens up and just drops rain for five minutes, you can still have these really high-energy, high-velocity flows that are eroding the stream bank rapidly.”

Any drop of rain that falls in this state could eventually end up in the bay, Maher said, but high-energy flows caused by storms and exacerbated by storm water management practices also wash pollutants from streams and rain water – and thus from roads and other surfaces – into the bay at a much faster rate. Because of this, storm water management has a significant effect on the health of the bay.

Whether or not the money raised from the fees will help counteract this and improve the bay’s health is questionable, Maher said.

“The types of water management things that this funding could go towards could be something like stream restorations, where you take one of these highly eroded streams,” he said. “You basically rebuild the stream so that it no longer has a deep stream channel, it has more natural flows so that you’re not having such huge erosion problems, but that’s very expensive.”

The benefits of stream restoration projects like this, however, are not necessarily as clear as some would like to claim, Maher said. Focusing on improving waste management procedures, such as manure storage at chicken farms on the Eastern Shore, can be more effective than storm water management projects in highly urbanized areas.

While conservation and restoration projects are important, Kaushal said, a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin is very relevant nonetheless: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Restoration efforts do require a lot of time and effort – he said it’s not necessarily ineffective or a poor use of money, however – but there is a lot more that can be done to help the bay.

Storm water management can be upgraded, concrete can be broken up where it’s not needed to reduce impervious surfaces and parking lots can be replaced with special types of storm water management that allow rain to be absorbed into the soil. Developers can also minimize the extent of impervious services by installing gravel lots, thinner roads, rain gardens and rain barrels that prevent rain water hitting roofs from entering streams all at once.

The MDE official said developers have been expected to act in accordance with erosion and sediment control and storm water management requirements since the early ’80s; because of this, restoration projects are needed for properties built before this time – especially in older urban areas.

Maher said local governments could more effectively help the bay by incentivizing good storm water management efforts for developers. Conversely, he believes homeowners should not be penalized with fees on relatively permanent aspects of homes, such as a driveway or a roof.

“It’s not really changing people’s behavior, unless it has incentives to install adaptations,” he said. “If it’s a tax just to raise money, then it’s sort of losing out on a lot of benefits you can get from a well-designed tax that also discourages environmentally destructive behavior or encourages by giving tax breaks for environmentally protective behaviors.”

Regardless of the specific approaches local governments can take in addressing storm water management issues, Kaushal – who uses signs explaining storm water management practices near Comcast Center to illustrate to his students that storm water management happens even in their backyards – said there is definite need for restoration projects across the state.

“You can’t leave some of these streams and watersheds that are very old and have been heavily degraded,” he said. “You can’t just leave them alone. You have to do something.”

Reprinted from Council on the Environment with permission.