Out Of The Shadows

July 31, 2014
Jim Caldwell
Watershed Protection and Restoration Fee

The forgotten utility is coming out of the shadows.

For the last 18 months I have been blogging about the underfunded and often misunderstood stormwater management program. After years on the back burner, the status of this important environmental program is about to change. Last week, County Executive Ulman introduced legislation to create a dedicated Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund – more commonly referred to as the stormwater utility fund. This fund, required by State law, is fundamental in our efforts to manage the only growing source of pollution to our streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

In the Chesapeake region, before the influence of modern society, stormwater was dampened by an extensive tree canopy and then quickly absorbed into the forest floor. Runoff only occurred during the largest of storms, when stream banks overflowed into surrounding flood plains until the storm passed. Today, with less forest cover and over 19,000 acres of rooftops, driveways, roads and parking lots in the county; runoff cannot soak into the ground, flood plains are often channelized; and stormwater rushes all too quickly off impervious areas, gouging out stream banks, and eroding soils along the way.

Since the advent of stormwater management regulations 25 years ago, designs to manage flow have improved, resulting in a landscape dotted with a variety of management structures, from ponds, to swales, inlets, outlet and hundreds of miles of pipe. All together, Howard County’s stormwater infrastructure represents an investment of over $660 million. Since stormwater runoff is responsible for 20% of the pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, it only makes sense that maintenance of this infrastructure investment is vital to our collective efforts to save our backyard streams and the Bay.

Over the last year, County staff have worked hard to design a watershed restoration fund that addresses stormwater maintenance shortcomings and encompasses new construction projects needed to meet our water quality mandates in a fair and equitable manner. We commissioned a diverse stormwater advisory committee composed of homeowners, business owners, the faith community, the environmental community, the office management community and the engineering community. This group worked tirelessly to understand the challenges, identify issues and work toward a fair assessment of all properties within the community.

Likewise, we met with representatives of the agricultural community to better understand and address their unique situation. Lastly, we routinely gathered with the other area jurisdictions to share ideas, concepts and formulas as we tackled the complex challenges of developing this utility fee.

In the coming months, discussions will be taking place all over the region as jurisdictions begin to define the specifics of this State mandated fee. If you, your club, group, congregation or organization would like to learn more about the what why and how of the stormwater utility, just let me know and I will be happy to schedule time to discuss the details with you.

Jim Caldwell
Stormwater Manager