Stormwater management -- is that important? Well, yes, it is, if you care about clean water. This is why the recently announced plan of County Executive Ike Leggett to pursue public- private partnerships for Montgomery County's stormwater management program has raised urgent questions.
Stormwater management is critical for preserving clean water in Montgomery County, the State of Maryland, and beyond. Every time it rains, or snows, water runs off paved surfaces, e.g. roads, highways, parking lots and driveways. It washes fertilizer from lawns and fields, pesticides, oil and anti-freeze from cars, pet waste, and sediment (dirt and loose soil) into creeks and streams. One inch of rain falling on one acre of hard surface can produce 27,000 gallons of polluted stormwater runoff. From the rivers and streams, these harmful materials are fed into the Chesapeake Bay. (You may have heard that the Chesapeake Bay's waters are not in the best condition.)
The Chesapeake: Now and Then
Back in the early 17th century, when Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame explored the Chesapeake, its waters were clear, and one could see vast meadows of underwater grasses, prolific oyster reefs, and abundant fish. Imagine what a sight it must have been. Native Powhatan boys dived for oysters and collected pearls from mussels in the Chesapeake Bay. When Christopher Newport, one of Jamestown's founders, sailed up the James River in 1607, the native Powhatan people served him and his exploring party freshly boiled Chesapeake mussels. Archeological evidence suggests that oysters could grow to be a foot long.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, the Bay has been on the impaired waters list for decades and oysters in Maryland are at about one percent of their historic abundance. Coming into contact with its water would not be good for your skin.
How do we impact the Chesapeake?
What we do with our stormwater runoff in Montgomery County has a direct effect on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, because we are part of the its watershed. So competent management of our stormwater is vitally important. The County has a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit, which contains both state and federal mandates to engage in stormwater projects for improving the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay.
Under this permit, the County should:
- Assess sources of pollutants in runoff;
- Identify best management practices for stormwater control;
- Establish and inspect management systems to control runoff, and;
- Restore 20 % of the impervious surface area in the County that has not already been managed.
The main source of funding for stormwater management comes from the Water Quality Protection charge, a charge that is added to County property tax bills. This charge is not subject to the County's charter limit on property taxes. It has increased by more than 1100 % over the last 15 years.
Reportedly much of the money collected goes to the operating budget, the general fund, for the capital budget and debt service on capital projects. Most of the proceeds from the charge do not actually go directly towards physical stormwater capital projects.
A series of lawsuits about the County's activities under the Permit ended with imposition of a consent decree on Montgomery County. The Maryland Department of the Environment alleged numerous violations of its permit by the County, including running up deficits of unrestored impervious land, as well as reporting failures. The consent decree requires the County to build a number of supplemental environmental projects by the end of 2020.
In a recent memo to the County Council, Executive Leggett has proposed setting up a framework for public-private partnerships for an anticipated new permit. Questions about this proposal abound. As justification for his proposal, Mr. Leggett claims that this approach has produced significant cost efficiencies in other jurisdictions, such as Prince George's County. While the annual increases in the Water Quality Protection Charge suggest that cost savings should be pursued, the use of a public-private partnership to achieve those savings raises issues.
Will property owners have some recourse if they do not agree with the private partner's decisions? The county has legal liability to the state, so is it smart to hand off compliance to a private entity? Or will the entity agree to assume the liability of the county if it fails to achieve the mandates in the consent decree? Do we have sufficient information from the Prince George's experience to rely on it as a model for Montgomery County? We urge the County Council to seek answers to the tough questions from Mr. Leggett. To discuss your concerns with the Council, call 240-777-7900.