Spending the money to clean up water pollution: Part 2: Who pays?

This is part 2 of a two-part post discussing DC Water’s Clean Rivers Fee and water pollution charges in general. Part 1 was published yesterday.

As I discussed in last week’s post, it has always been expensive to clean up water pollution, and it’s always required commitment, cooperation, and cash. That’s why it worries me that Maryland’s Governor Hogan successfully ran in 2015 on a promise to repeal the “rain tax mandate,” and then worked with the legislature to allow some counties to undercut their commitments to clean up stormwater pollution as required by federal law. It worries me that an in-depth investigation by News 4’s I-team on DC Water’s Clean Rivers fee found examples of churches and cemeteries charged beyond their ability to pay–an equity issue that must be addressed.

But, it also worries me that the Maryland Public Policy Institute took advantage of that investigation to accuse DC Water of cleaning up the Anacostia on the backs of the “poor and the dead” and to question the entire premise of charging water pollution fees to residents and ratepayers. It concerns me also that some Montgomery County residents have been vociferously fighting against the county Department of Environmental Protection installing water-filtering rain gardens in public spaces along their roads. The author of the local opinion piece below has it right: reducing the money and support available for cleaning up water pollution would set back our efforts in this now 120-year-old campaign.

As Jim Foster of the Anacostia Watershed Society says,

We’re locked into some big infrastructure costs because DC Water is now legally required to build big tunnels to hold the sewer overflow. So, those tunnels have to be paid for somehow–and we all use pavement, so it’s got to be all of us. We need creative funding solutions. Why don’t WSSC [Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, in Maryland] and Fairfax Water contribute, since they send their sewage to Blue Plains? Why has the federal government been fighting and kicking at paying its share?

No, it seems clear, churches with largely senior memberships should not have to pay six-figure water bills–they just can’t. But they, too contribute to the problem, so there must be another way for them to contribute to the solution. These types of institutions should be given real incentives to reduce their parking lots or change them to permeable pavement, and then get a real discount on their fees. The cost burden must then be shifted to those more able to pay and who also contribute to the problem, whether the federal government, other states in the region, or the developers benefiting from DC’s current enormous building boom.

Prince George’s County has found a way to provide significant discounts on its stormwater fee to houses of worship who install rain gardens, replace their parking lots, and provide green education programs for their congregants. In one case in PG County, “a fee that was estimated at $744 a year will be reduced to “‘virtually nothing,'” according to Adam Ortiz, director of the Department of the Environment. Baltimore City has a number of exemptions and hardship waivers for nonprofit entities and spaces open to the public.

DC Water is reconsidering elements of its Clean Rivers fee structure now, and perhaps it will come to a similar conclusion. ANS would support a fee structure that shares the burden to all who contribute to the problem while accounting for justice and fairness to those who have long been the most impacted by pollution and cannot afford to contribute as much as they would no doubt like to. Churches and nonprofits have unique educational and demonstration opportunities because so many people visit them, and DC Water should consider providing fee relief to these types of institutions in return for forming strong educational partnerships with them. Alongside a new fee structure for nonprofits, however, must come a reevaluation of who is required to pay for these costs at all. Why should District ratepayers bear so much of the burden to repair the pipes for a regional asset?

Regardless, just as Maryland counties should not have repealed their Water Quality Protection Charges once Governor Hogan made it possible for them to do so, DC Water should certainly not repeal its Clean Rivers charge. Without it, we’ll slow and then reverse the painfully won progress to clean up our rivers over the last 120 years.

Read ANS’ past blog posts on stormwater fees:
Spending the money to clean up water pollution: Part 1: A long-running part of the DC region’s history
Paying to Fix Stormwater Pollution in Prince George’s County
How Are Maryland Counties Going to Pay to Fix Stormwater Pollution?
Montgomery’s Water Quality Protection Charge and Fund: Crucial to All Who Need Clean Water
Funding Clean Water: A Tale of Two Counties

About Eliza Cava

Eliza Cava is the ANS Director of Conservation, where she leads our MD & DC policy, advocacy, and conservation outreach work, supervises our citizen science programs and VA advocacy work, and supports Woodend restoration as a demonstration landscape for the region.
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