By Dan Sze
Twice a year, if you are a property owner in the City, a separate fee for stormwater utility appears on your tax bill. Why do we, as individual land owners, pay stormwater fees? Why are home building contractors erecting straw bale enclosures and installing filter socks on the storm drains? Why does the City spend our hard-earned money constructing elaborate underground holding structures? It all does seem like a lot of work to prevent rainwater from working its way downstream. Is this effort to keep polluted rainwater carrying oily waste, lawn fertilizer, dirt, debris and other street trash from leaving the City in an uncontrolled way, a good idea or just another manifestation of the nanny state? Let’s look at the bigger picture.
The 1999 fires burning on the Cuyahoga River – it has caught fire 12 times since 1868 – transfixed the nation and lifted environmental activism. The National Environment Protection Act, commonly called NEPA, was signed into law by Richard Nixon on January 1, 1970. This act helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which in turn helped create the Clean Water Act. In 2010, six States and the District, along with the Federal Government, started spending millions to address the sad condition of the Bay, our nation’s largest estuarine system. Years of unthinking and unsavory practices have contributed to eliminating the Bay as a resource for commercial fishing and oyster harvesting. Only the crabbing industry has viability and that is marginal and subject to annual catch restrictions. There is a seasonal oxygen-free “dead zone” covering much of the bottom of the water that is created by the run-off. Clearly, abundance from the Bay is behind us. This situation was brought on by decades of neglect or by contribution of those that live or have commerce in the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay watershed runs from New York through Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, the District and Virginia. Over 17 million people live in the Bay watershed and it is home to over 150 rivers and streams. Our City’s watershed system and its contribution is one of many, but our storm water utility impact is writ large and far. We are held as an exemplar in the region and beyond; what we have accomplished, others seek yet to achieve.
I’m sad to think that there is bad news ahead of us. When on September 13, 2013, Judge Sylvia Rambo ruled that the EPA could regulate nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution flowing into our Bay, this essentially started the restoration effort. Those in opposition included national associations for farms and agriculture, fertilizer, meat and egg producers and builders. They were joined by 21 out-of-state attorneys generals. Now, just when it appears that we are on track to complete the restoration and pollution levels can be reduced so that the Chesapeake Bay can be removed from EPA’s “dirty waters” list by 2025, the Administration’s proposed budget eliminates $73 million, or most of the funding for 2018. Similar cuts have been made to efforts for the Great Lakes, Gulf Delta, Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. The enforcement division for the EPA is proposed to be gutted. The signal to our country is that we don’t care what happens to our waterways and no one will be there to stop anyone from breaking the law. Yes, the law and the requirement remains, but the enforcers are all gone.
I would like to think that we have come far from the time when water pollution was a part of economic production and considered to be necessary for prosperity and well being. When the City of Falls Church established a task force to examine our response to storm water and followed its recommendation to enact ordinance and impose fees, it was in response to our core values. We believed that, despite our small size, we could make a difference. We continue to make a difference: our City has developed the Rain Sense program to incentivize individual efforts. Dog owners are expected to BYOB on dog walks. Many yards benefit from relying on little or no fertilizer; some have converted grass to gardens.
In 2025, if current efforts are continued, the Chesapeake Bay is estimated to generate $130 billion in economic benefit just from being clean. We cannot and must not go back.
At the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments, representing 29 jurisdictions in Virginia, Maryland, and the District, efforts have begun to register our collective protest against the attack on our core values on the environment. Senators Kaine and Warner have gone on record opposing this cut. Representative Donald Beyer has done one better by leading a protest in front of EPA. Please tell them the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort is an important part of who we are and that you appreciate their support for our values.
Dan Sze is a member of the Falls Church City Council.