Stormwater Management Background

What is stormwater?
Stormwater begins as rain or water from melting snow that falls on, or washes over, pervious and impervious surfaces.

  • Pervious surfaces—such as grass, woodlands, gardens, and other undeveloped land—allow stormwater to be absorbed by the ground via natural infiltration.
  • Impervious surfaces—such as roofs, driveways, parking lots, streets, and other hard surfaces—are impenetrable and do not allow stormwater to be absorbed.

Stormwater runoff is created from excess water that cannot be absorbed by pervious surfaces, or from water flowing off impervious areas. Rather than being absorbed into the ground, this stormwater runoff enters Howard County’s stormwater drainage system—a network of catch basins, inlets, pipes, ponds, and swales. The water is diverted through this network to local streams, rivers, and lakes—and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.

Why is stormwater a problem?
Stormwater causes problems related to both the quantity and the quality of water reaching our streams, rivers, and ultimately, the Bay. Stormwater runoff picks up anything in its path and delivers it to our water resources—including oil from cars, yard waste, fertilizers, litter, pet waste, and sediment. These pollutants impair stormwater quality, which harms plant and animal life in streams and other waterways.

In addition to this pollution, stormwater can cause flooding, erosion, and property damage if not properly managed. Higher volumes of stormwater flow, due to a lack of absorption through natural infiltration, can impair the aquatic environment for plant and animal life and cause stream erosion that results in additional pollutants entering our waterways, such as sediment.

How is stormwater managed?
Historically, “stormwater management” meant diverting rainwater into existing streams via pipes or open channels to keep it away from streets and properties. The emphasis was to protect citizens, buildings, and roads from flood dangers and property damage. These strategies managed the amount of water in certain areas but did nothing to make the water cleaner.

In recent years, stormwater management has been redefined to include new best management practices (BMPs) that help to:

  • Remove or keep pollutants out of the water entering the storm drain system.
  • Slow down the water to prevent erosion.

What does the stormwater management program do?
Similar to the water utility that supports drinking water treatment and distribution infrastructure, or the electricity management program that ensures the delivery of power, the stormwater management program is tasked with the maintenance and improvement of extensive water drainage systems. These systems consist of storm drains, catch basins, underground pipes, open channels, culverts, ponds, and streams that receive the stormwater.

Program activities include:

  • The administration, planning, implementation, and maintenance of the stormwater structures that reduce stormwater flow and the introduction of pollutants into local waterways. These include large stormwater ponds and smaller BMPs like rain gardens.
  • The installation, operation, maintenance, and replacement of public drainage systems.
  • Activities necessary to maintain compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Permit requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Activities include:
    • Public education and outreach on the impact of stormwater
    • Illicit discharge detection and elimination
    • Construction site stormwater control
    • Post-construction runoff control
    • Pollution prevention for municipal operations
  • Other water quality improvement programs, like stream restoration.

Why is stormwater management suddenly getting so much attention?
For over 30 years, efforts have been underway in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to improve the quality of the Bay and surrounding streams and rivers. While progress has been made, the Bay and Maryland’s streams and rivers continue to suffer from significant water quality problems.

Through the MS4 permit, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) have increased the requirements for local governments to better manage stormwater. The new requirements are important to improve water quality, but they come at a cost that is beyond the normal expenditures that communities have traditionally devoted to stormwater management. In order to improve water quality and comply with our permits, we must increase activity and funding for our stormwater program.

The Watershed Protection Fee

What is the Watershed Protection Fee?
In 2012, the Maryland State Legislature passed a law which mandates that the 10 largest jurisdictions in the state create a stormwater protection fee by July 1, 2013. This Watershed Protection Fee (WPF), which is also referred to as the Stormwater Utility Fee or the Stormwater Remediation Fee, is a service fee like water, sewer, gas, power, and other utility service fees.

The Watershed Protection Fee (WPF) provides a sustainable, dedicated source of revenue for the purpose of operating, maintaining, and improving the physical infrastructure of the County’s stormwater management system, and for practices to improve stormwater quality. The funds may also be used to support educational stormwater programs in an effort to engage communities and enlist their support in identifying problems and working on solutions to improve water quality.

In 2024, CR 57-2024 updated the rates for the WPF for the first time in ten years. New rates can be found here.

I thought the Governor repealed this.  Why am I still being billed?

The 2015 Maryland General Assembly passed and the Governor signed SB 863, which lifted the state mandate requiring 10 local jurisdictions to establish a Watershed Protection Fee. However, this bill did not lift the federal mandate requiring local jurisdictions to treat impervious surfaces (such as parking lots) within their borders. Howard County is still required to treat 20 percent of its total currently untreated impervious area by 2019 under present requirements.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, Howard County experienced a $15.8 million shortfall, requiring mid-year budget cuts. Further, the county anticipates only $15.6 million in increased revenue for FY 2016, with the majority of that money automatically assigned to the Howard County Public School System to fulfill the State’s Maintenance of Effort formula.

This challenging fiscal situation led the Spending Affordability Committee to recommend the continuation of the Watershed Protection Fee for FY 2016. Based on this recommendation, the County Executive determined it to be fiscally prudent to continue the Watershed Protection Fee.

Why do I have to pay for rain falling on my property?
The Watershed Protection Fee is not determined in any way by the amount of rain that falls on a property.

The fee is tied to the amount a property impacts the County's stormwater system, which is managed by the County. The stormwater system is in place to manage the polluted runoff moving across impervious areas on a property that subsequently enters a storm drain or County stream. Users are charged a fee based on whether their property is residential, commercial, non-profit, or agricultural. Each property type has different criteria for how the fee is charged.

How is this fee different from a tax?
The Watershed Protection Fee is not a tax. A tax is a generalized assessment levied in a consistent amount against all taxpayers. A fee is tied to a particular service. So, in the same way that a water bill is tied to the amount of water used, the Watershed Protection Fee is tied to a property’s impact on the stormwater system. The fee is used to operate, maintain, and improve the stormwater drainage system in the same way that water bill payments are used to operate, maintain, and improve the water delivery system.

What will the fee pay for?
The Watershed Protection Fee provides funding for:

  • Capital improvements for stormwater management including stream and wetland restoration projects
  • Operation and maintenance of stormwater management systems and facilities
  • Public education and outreach relating to stormwater management or stream and wetland restoration
  • Stormwater management planning including
    • Mapping and assessment of impervious surfaces
    • Monitoring, inspection, and enforcement activities
  • Review of stormwater management plans and permit applications for new development
  • Grants to nonprofit organizations for up to 100% of a project’s costs for watershed restoration and rehabilitation projects relating to:
    • Planning, design, and construction of stormwater management practices
    • Stream and wetland restoration
    • Public education and outreach related to stormwater management or stream and wetland restoration
  • Reasonable costs necessary to administer the fund

How has the County paid for stormwater in the past?
Historically, money from Howard County’s general fund (e.g., property taxes) funded the stormwater program and capital infrastructure improvements. This funding source is used for many County programs, from schools to public safety, and the level of funding available for stormwater has not been adequate to keep up with the need for new facilities and maintenance of the $660 million system of inlets, outlets, pipes, channels, and ponds that make up our current system.

Further, the funds available from the general fund are insufficient to pay for the improvements required by federal laws to reduce pollution and improve the quality of our streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

How much revenue will the fee generate?
The Watershed Protection Fee generates approximately $10 million per year.

Who must pay the fee?
All properties that impact the stormwater sewer system will be charged the Watershed Protection Fee, including:

  • Residential properties.
  • Commercial and industrial properties.
  • Nonprofit organizations.
  • Private schools.
  • Federal properties.
  • Vacant properties with impervious surfaces.

The state law requiring the establishment of this fee specifically exempts properties owned by local governments. Unless the law is changed, the County cannot charge these properties.

Why do I have to pay the fee if I do not have a drainage problem on my property?
Any property with impervious areas—such as rooftops, driveways, parking pads, etc.—contributes to stormwater runoff and impacts the storm sewer system.

While you may not have an evident drainage problem on your property, runoff generated from your parcel contributes to problems downstream. The approach being taken through this program recognizes that everyone contributes to the problem of runoff, and everyone benefits from improved water quality and reduced flooding potential.

How much will commercial properties be charged?
All non-residential/commercial properties will pay the same rate of $40 for each “unit” of 500 square feet of impervious area on their property. A parcel’s total impervious area is divided by 500, rounded to the nearest whole number, and multiplied by $40 to determine the fee.

For example, a property with 2,800 square feet of impervious area has 6 units (2800 ÷ 500 = 5.6, rounded to nearest whole number). The annual fee for the property would $224 (6 units x $40 per unit).

You can reduce your fee by taking a variety of measures to manage the stormwater from your property.

How will the County determine the amount of impervious area on my property?
A computer program will analyze existing infrared aerial photography already used by the County and the State, to distinguish impervious surfaces in contrast to areas that can absorb stormwater, such as lawns and gardens.

If I live in a townhouse or condo, who pays for the impervious surfaces in the common areas?
Residential common areas are not assessed a Fee.

Will the fee increase next year?
The County Council defines the fee by resolution each year. Fee rates were raised in 2024 in order to ensure the fund remains sustainable into the future due to increases in materials costs over time and more costly projects being needed to maintain our stormwater infrastructure.

How will I be billed this fee?
The Watershed Protection Fee will be included as a line item on your annual property tax bill, similar to the trash fee.

How much will my bill be?

  • If you own a commercial property with a street address, calculate your estimated impervious by entering your address here, divide that number by 500 square feet and then multiply by $40.
  • If you own a residential property, you will be charged $40 for condominium or townhouse units, $115 for single family homes on less than one-quarter acre, and $225 for lots on greater than one-quarter acre.
  • If you own an agricultural land use property with an agricultural conservation plan, you will be billed $155. If you own an agricultural property without an acceptable plan, you will be charged for all impervious surface on the parcel.

My neighbor and I share a driveway. Who pays for it?

  • If you own a residential property, this does not affect your fee, as it is calculated using your lot size, not actual impervious surface size.
  • If you own an agricultural property with an acceptable conservation plan on file with the Howard Soil Conservation District and other impervious on the property, this will not affect your fee ($155).
  • In all other cases, you are responsible for all impervious surface within your property lines unless you can provide documentation demonstrating that you are not financially responsible for said impervious.

What is considered impervious area on my property?
Initially, the fee will be based on the impervious surfaces composed of rooftops, driveways, and parking lots with surface area greater than 200 square feet. Although there are other impervious areas such as patios, walkways, pool decks, etc., for now, these surfaces are not used to calculate impervious area for the fee.

Why is a gravel driveway or parking pad considered impervious?
The Watershed Protection Fee is based on impervious surfaces as determined by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) under state law. Gravel is an impervious surface because, like concrete or asphalt, it functions as a barrier to natural infiltration and places a demand on the storm drainage infrastructure. Once gravel is compacted by vehicle traffic, surface water runs off similar to a paved surface. In addition, runoff from gravel surfaces carries sediment that creates downstream impacts to either stormwater management structures or to streams.

How will I be charged if I share a driveway or private road?
The fee is based on the amount of impervious area located on a property. Any portion of a shared driveway or private road located on a property will be added to the total impervious area calculation for that property. If part of a shared driveway or private road located on one property is subject to an easement used by another property owner, or there is a private agreement for use and/or maintenance between two or more property owners, then the fee may be adjusted to account for the shared use.

Any property owner may file an application for an adjustment based on either an error in calculating the impervious area of the owner’s property or an error in the identification of the property owner(s) responsible for the fee. To request an adjustment, a property owner should file the application form provided by the County and include (1) a statement that more than one property owner benefits from the use of the shared driveway or private road, and (2) documents supporting the claim, such as an easement agreement, a shared maintenance agreement, a declaration of covenants, or similar document that evidences common use or expressly divides the cost of maintenance.

What if there is an error in the charge for impervious area?
There is an appeal process for anyone who believes the charge has been calculated in error. The Fee Adjustment Request form is available for 30 days after the bills are issued.

What if I cannot afford to pay the fee?
There is a hardship program for residential property owners who cannot afford the fee. This program is administered by the Department of Finance and follows the same criteria as defined for hardship in paying the trash fee.

I already limit runoff on my property—why isn’t this showing up on my bill?
You must apply for credit against the Watershed Protection Fee; this is not automatically tabulated against your bill. Please see residential or commercial credit program information to learn more about this process.

All of my neighbors are getting billed $155. Why am I getting a bigger bill (for agricultural land use properties)?
You must have a soil conservation and water quality plan through the Howard Soil Conservation District to receive a $155 bill. Please note that Forest Stewardship and Woodland Conservation Plans are issued by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and must be on file with the Howard Soil Conservation District to receive the $155 bill. Visit http://howardscd.org/ for Howard Soil Conservation District contact information.

I don’t think this bill is correct. What do I do?
You may apply for a Watershed Protection Fee Request for Adjustment application. Please note that your bill will only be adjusted for the following reasons: mathematical error in calculating your bill, property owner invoiced is in error, or error in the amount of impervious surface (only applies to commercial and agricultural land use properties without conservation plans).

I own a commercial condominium. How will my fee be assessed?
Commercial condominium complexes’ impervious area is lumped into one area and then divided by the number of units in the area. Each unit receives an equal share of the resulting fee.

Watershed Protection Fee Credits

Is there any way to decrease my fee?
The fee can be reduced by removing impervious areas and/or construction of on-site stormwater controls (best management practices) that treat impervious surface runoff.

Who is eligible for a credit?

  • Commercial properties are eligible to receive a credit based on the percentage of the fee equivalent to the percentage of impervious surface area treated on site with a stormwater facility/BMP up to 100%. All credit applications are due by April 1 to be applied to that year's billing cycle.  All credit applicants must provide the calculation for the percentage of impervious surface area treated on site with engineer approval.
  • Residential properties developed before January 1, 2003, are eligible for a credit up to 100%. The actual amount of the credit is based on the amount of impervious area treated on site to the 2000 Maryland Stormwater Manual standards.
  • Nonprofit properties are eligible to receive a credit of up to 100% of the fee if the nonprofit is a part of the Nonprofit Watershed Protection Partnership. Fee is waived upon joining the Partnership until site has reached MEP. Credit is awarded after site reached MEP.
  • Agricultural properties can reduce their Watershed Protection Fee to a flat rate of $155 if you have in place, or have an MOU agreeing to develop, one of the following:

Why is there a difference in the credit process based on the date of the Site Development Plan?
The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) introduced a new Stormwater Design Manual in 2000. The County adopted the manual as part of its design standards in late 2002. The best management practice (BMP) designs presented in this manual are considered adequate protections for management of stormwater quantity and quality. Any properties developed under these designs, therefore, are considered to be managed to the maximum extent possible—provided those BMPs are still in place and operating properly. Properties developed before that date can incorporate these designs and also receive credit.

How will the credit program be administered?
The Office of Community Sustainability will administer the credit program.  Complete the appropriate credit application online for review.

Will my credit last forever?
No. Every three years, the credit will need to be recertified. This will be a self-certification process, with a small number of properties with credits randomly inspected for compliance assurance.

Reimbursement for On-Site Stormwater Management Practices

What is the purpose of a reimbursement program?
The reimbursement program is designed to assist residential and commercial property owners with the cost of constructing facilities to better manage stormwater runoff on a property. Stormwater management is a community-wide effort and, through the reimbursement program, a portion of the fund will be used to provide an incentive for the construction of stormwater practices that reduce the impact of stormwater runoff.

What is eligible for reimbursement?
A variety of practices are eligible for reimbursement, including the addition of rain barrels, rain gardens, or conservation landscapes; planting trees; removing impervious cover; replacing impervious cover with permeable pavers, etc.

How much reimbursement can I receive?
The amount of reimbursement depends on the practice (BMP) installed and the property type. All BMP's are reimbursed at 75% of the cost of the project, up to a maximum, depending on the BMP type. The chart on page 4 of this document lists the reimbursement rates for residential and commercial properties, by BMP type.

Can a practice installed under the reimbursement program also get a credit?
Yes, the reimbursement is a one-time payment based on the documented cost of the BMP. Once installed, a credit can be obtained on an annual basis. The amount of credit is defined by the amount of impervious surface treated by the BMP, relative to the total impervious on the property.