Who picks up the tab for clean water?
At a recent hearing on a proposed county-wide storm water pollution control funding measure, I witnessed a parade of private citizens, city officials and taxpayer organization representatives echoing each other’s talking points for what seemed like hours. Essentially, they argued that while clean water is desirable, it is unacceptable to increase tax revenue to pay for it, considering the current economic climate and competing public needs such as education, welfare, police and safety.
Although the proposed parcel fee could be considered minimal, at approximately $50 per year for most homeowners, many speakers seemed to object on principle to what they derogatively labeled a “rain tax.” The dollar amounts and the faces of the speakers may change, but this same conversation is happening around the country as municipalities grapple with the high costs of complying with suddenly stringent water quality standards.
In most urban areas, storm water permits have been written to prod permittees along the path to cleaner receiving waters following an iterative BMP-based approach. This approach relies heavily on forcing progressive improvements to the quality of storm water discharge from land development projects as technology advances and as more information is gathered about best management practices and receiving water conditions. In most regions, incremental progress has at least been made toward slowing degradation rates, and in some cases, real water quality improvements can be quantified. However, the process is built on assumptions about program and BMP effectiveness that often are self-serving and poorly measured. As compliance become less qualitative and more tightly linked to numeric water quality standards, new approaches will be required.
With challenging pollutants like pathogens, heavy metals and nutrients as the leading causes of storm water-related impairments, compliance can seem to stretch the bounds of what is technically achievable, regardless of cost. Yet, through incorporation of total maximum daily loads (TMDL) into NPDES permits, waste load allocations for these and other pollutants become enforceable. No longer do we have the luxury of assuming that water quality goals eventually will be met through implementation of increasingly effective controls for development projects. New development regulations will remain an important tool, but retrofit of the built environment will be required on a massive scale. This, of course, leads back to the funding debate. With a better understanding of the TMDL process and the legal requirement to meet NPDES permit obligations, the question of whether or not receiving water rehabilitation is a wise use of public funds becomes irrelevant. Non-compliance with water quality standards is not a viable strategy given the resulting exposure to citizen lawsuits and enforcement actions.
Instead, the question becomes, “How are we going to pay for the cleanup?” One way or another, the answer usually points back to those who live in the watersheds and contribute to the problem. Making the transition in the court of public opinion from a hated “rain tax” to an accepted “utility” will depend on cultivating residents’ appreciation of the “beneficial uses” of their local water bodies. I, for one, will be doing my part by spending as much time as possible engaged in “full body contact” recreation. See you at the beach!