Monday, November 24, 2014

Is the "rain tax" dead?

       The use of derogatory terms by opponents of new programs seems to be an effective way to systematize ideas and programs.  Remember the "flush tax," "death tax," "death panels," and of course labeling the Affordable Health Care program "Obamacare."  On the last one, Obamacare, having your name associated with a program that provides health care to the uninsured is a positive legacy for the President in my opinion.
      So one of the issues that became part of the political debate in Maryland this last election cycle was the so called "rain tax."  In today's anti-tax climate calling anything a tax can help you gain traction if you want to oppose a law.  I think storm runoff fee might more appropriately be called a "user fee" as it only impacts those creating the problem that needs to be addressed.  Time will tell but I expect that the "rain tax" will be eliminated in the next Maryland Legislative session.  Maybe there is a better way to address the problem then a tax but given the projected deficit in the Maryland budget I doubt that other revenues will be found to address the issue.
       So  what is the issue that the fee was supposed to address?  With more of our land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed being developed for both residential and commercial uses the amount of runoff from this area, with impermeable surfaces, has caused severe environmental impacts on the Bay.    Below you can see the silt runoff that flows from the rivers and streams into the Bay.

   Compounding the problem of the silt runoff is that it includes the fertilizers that are used by farmers and residents.  This causes the algae blooms that we see in many of our lakes and storm runoff ponds.  Below is an example of this closer to home in Lake Elkhorn.

     The Columbia Association has to dredge our lakes and a frequent basis to remove the algae blooms and aquatic plants using a machine like the one pictured below.

   The Columbia Association has also attempted to impact the storm runoff going into Lake Elkhorn by building rock barriers, called infiltration trenches, to capture the silt as show below in a stream that feeds the Lake. 

      Last week I had a chance to talk with Ned Tillman who has written a couple of books on the stormwater runoff issue and other environmental issues impacting our communities.  The books I have been reading "Saving the Places We Love" and "The Chesapeake Watershed" are important books to read if you want to learn the background story to why action is required to restore health to the Chesapeake Bay.  
     So if we don't like to be taxed to address this problem how can we take responsibility for the problems we are creating?  As homeowners we are at the point of origin of the problem.  We are in the best position to address the issue at its origin--our roofs, our driveways and our lawns.  Below is a picture of the storm runoff on my yard.  

    The water from my roof downspout flowed along a path between my yard and my neighbor's yard every time we had a heavy rain.  A gully was being created by the frequent storms.  Talking with my neighbor about the issue I mentioned that the Columbia Association had grant funds to install rain gardens that paid for 2/3 of the cost of the landscaping to build the rain gardens.  We went in together and had two rain gardens installed.

    Not only are the rain gardens effective in solving our storm water runoff problem but they are attractive.

They also attract birds and butterflies to our yards.  And yes the deer enjoy some of the plants too.

    Above is a picture of the rain garden in action during a thunder storm like the one pictured before showing the runoff.  In the picture above you can see how the runoff is channeled through my rain garden into my neighbor's rain garden and not into the street.   
     So now with the rain garden in place I have decided to slowly but surely eliminate as much of the grass in my yard as possible and replace it with ground cover and plants that are more environmentally friendly than grass.  I have never used fertilizer on my yard so you can imagine that my yard was never the green carpet that seems to be the goal of many suburban homeowners.
     Below are some of the hostas that I have planted along with the other ground cover and plants that are replacing my grass.

    My goal is to have all my grass gone in 2 years and to work to develop a certified wildlife preserve.

    On my other downspout I have installed a rain barrel to catch the rain water from my other roof.

      So with the probably death of the "rain tax" I would hope that it doesn't mean that we close our eyes to the reality that the Chesapeake Bay is under stress from development.  I would hope that both local and state government would look at implementing programs to make rain gardens, rain barrels and other approaches affordable and to assist homeowners and business to take the responsibility to address the issue.
Playing politics with the issue on a taxing basis may win political points but it comes at the sake of the health of the Bay.  I would hope that the Chesapeake Bay really is important enough in defining Maryland that other remedies to this issue can be found.  So as the opponents of the tax claim a possible political victory with its repeal I hope there are enough of us to ask them what they want to do to address the health of Bay in a more effective way.


    Permeable surfaces like the ones below are another way to address the issue.  Maybe tax credits or some other incentives can be found to encourage more of them in the future would help.


Middle Patuxent Enviornmental Area Autumn Olive RemovalWhen: Tuesday - November 25th, 9 AM to 11:30 AMWhere: South Wind Circle Trailhead off Trotter Rd, Clarksville

This Autumn Olive Removal event con­tinues the effort to remove the woody non-native inva­sive plant which has degraded habi­tat in many Howard County parks. The event is part of the ongo­ing Con­ser­va­tion Stew­ard­ship Pro­ject, a joint program of Howard County Mas­ter Gardeners with Recreation and Parks. No bend­ing or expe­ri­ence needed; mostly pruners and shears work. All ages wel­come.

Driving Directions: South Wind Circle Entrance to MPEA
Route 29 to Route 108 west towards Clarksville or Route 32 to Route 108 east. Turn onto Trotter Road to South Wind Circle (about 1 mile). Enter the circle and proceed to trailhead on left (opposite Misty Top Path). Please carpool.

For more Information:
Aylene Gard, Master Gardener, 410-992-9889 or
Jeff Claffy, Assistant Natural Resources Manager, MPEA, 410-313-6209


Anonymous said...

Great blog item. I always like the pictures you post, too - quite a talent for nature scenes.

Is the "rain tax" dead? In its current incarnation, I certainly hope so. It was a classic example of the lazy, thoughtless work that our legislature does all too often. Don't address the problem; don't think it through; just tell people to pay some money and we're done.

What should happen? First, decide if the money to address the Bay will be collected as a "user fee" or a "tax." If it's a "user fee," then those that cause the biggest problem pay the biggest amount. Yes, it's regressive - non-profits with lots of impermeable surfaces pay more than wealthy homeowners - but that's a "fee." If it's a "tax," then just add it to the property tax or the income tax and be done with it.

Second, have it apply to all the parts of the state that drain into the Bay, not just 9 or 10 jurisdictions.

Third, have it be applied fairly and consistently across those jurisdictions. Don't just tell 'em "do something; we don't care what."

Fourth, use the money collected for the purpose. Don't go creating another slush fund to raid for somebody's pet projects. We know money is fungible; you don't have to keep proving it.

Fifth, stop this nonsense where the state buys property to "protect the bay" and then immediately wants to lease it to Martin O'Malley's friend/contributor for a dollar a year on a no-bid contract.

In summary: have the General Assembly actually do its job, and have the executive show some ethics, and MAYBE we won't object so much next time.

duanestclair said...

Good response to my post. You raise some good points that should be considered in moving forward on addressing the problem with storm water runoff. I would say that "how" we address the issue isn't as important as the fact that we "do" address it.

Anonymous said...

The way that the HoCo council levied this fee on homeowners has resulted in a homeowner with a lot just over a quarter-acre paying twice the amount as his neighbor with a lot that is just under a quarter-acre. When this was pointed out to Courtney Watson, she said "Looks like a mistake." This way of charging has nothing to do with impervious surfaces. Every other charge on the HoCo tax bill is either the same for everyone or proportional to some measurable value.