Delaware panel eyes new effort to impose water tax

Mirror Lake, in Dover, is pictured from April. (Submitted photo)

Mirror Lake, in Dover, is pictured from April. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — More than a year after the governor’s failed water tax proposal a task force is seeking to find a solution to Delaware’s water woes.

About 94 percent of Delaware’s rivers and 74 percent of its ponds cannot support healthy fish populations, state officials claim.

In addition, 86 percent of rivers and 41 percent of ponds are dangerous to swim in. Flooding is also an issue.

Pollutants from industry going back well over 50 years have harmed the quality of the state’s waterways. The state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cites runoff from roads, farm waste and septic pollutants as additional factors.

As a result, Senate Concurrent Resolution 30 established the Clean Water and Flood Abatement Task Force in July.

The panel has met three times since then with another gathering scheduled for Thursday.

“We’re trying to take a very comprehensive and deep look at these issues so we can try to suggest how Delaware can do a better job with water issues moving forward,” Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, said.

The Democrat is a co-sponsor of the legislation and one of the task force’s co-chairmen.

Sen. Townsend described the task force as a followup of Gov. Jack Markell’s 2014 push for a water fee. That proposal would have added a fee totaling between $45 and $85 per year for a single-family household on a half-acre of land, generating $30 million in new revenue for the state government.

But the idea was soundly rejected by lawmakers who heard from many members of the public who are tired of new taxes.

“If anything could have been less popular than the gas tax, this thing was even less popular than the gas tax,” Gov. Markell admitted at the March Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon. “I set a pretty high bar in terms of unpopular proposals, and this one like exceeded that.”

After the recommendation fell flat, some environmental groups and legislators continued to push for a funding method.

The Delaware Nature Society claimed in April that it had conducted a poll that found 57 percent of respondents were willing to pay a small amount of money for cleaner water.

Meanwhile, the issues haven’t gone away, said Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-New Castle. He’s the other co-chairman of the task force.

Some wells in his district were shut down due to chemicals “creeping” through the ground, he said. Flooding remains a problem in many parts of the state, he noted.

“If it’s in my district, it’s probably in a lot of other districts,” he said.

Exactly what the group and its 29 members recommend will be decided over the next few months.

Dr. Gerald Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center and a member of the task force, thinks the solution to the state’s impaired waterways can come from both improved efficiency with existing strategies and through creating a constant funding source.

“Right now, we rely on mechanisms that go up and down based on appropriations at various government levels,” he said.

Both he and Sen. Townsend said they feel the state has several effective practices and agencies focused on improving water quality.

“We had a pretty good structure. We just haven’t funded it enough,” Sen. Townsend insisted.

Maryland increased water-related fees in recent years under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, whose term expired earlier this year.

The task force will issue a report by the end of January. Recommendations will be presented to the governor and the General Assembly.

Even if members decide a water fee should be put in place, it would have to be passed by the General Assembly next year. Republican lawmakers stood firm against road-related fee increases this session and with an election set for fall 2016, legislators might be even more unwilling to institute a new tax on the state’s residents.

Still, supporters are remaining optimistic and are committed to the task force.

Citizens want the best services but are often not willing to pay for them, Sen. Townsend said. He warned the level of assistance and oversight provided by the state could diminish without stable funding.

“At the end of the day there seems to be a chronic underfunding of the infrastructure in Delaware,” he said.

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