Counties weigh in on proposed water fee

DOVER — Both Sussex and Kent County administrators believe the goals outlined in House Bill 270 to establish a “Clean Water Trust” are important — but funding them will likely be a challenge for legislators.

Sussex County administrator Todd Lawson said bills with similar initiatives struggled during previous administrations.

“Dating back to former Gov. Jack Markell’s administration and previous legislatures these sorts of initiatives have been tried,” he said. “The county council did have some concerns about a new tax and how the money was going to be used at the time.

“The council hasn’t taken an official position on this new bill yet, but I anticipate they will at some point.”

Regardless of past of future efforts though, Mr. Lawson said that Sussex County has been working diligently to bring it’s wastewater and pollution discharges under control for decades and will continue to do so.

“We have 70,000 wastewater customers on the county sewer system, and when we started in the sewer business back in the 70s, it was with the mission of eliminating failing septic and sewer systems,” he said. “Most of this has been focused within the inland bay areas in Sussex County.”

According to Mr. Lawson, there are thousands more failing systems in line to be brought under the county’s umbrella.

“The state and DNREC has jurisdiction over many of these privately run systems that are failing,” he added. “When the county comes into play is when these Home Owners’ Associations and other operators of private systems come to us for help.”

Although new funding tools can be helpful, Mr. Lawson says Sussex County has been using the state’s existing “revolving fund” and grants from the USDA to fund improvements and expansions of its wastewater system.

Delaware’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, makes funding available to municipalities, private organizations, nonprofit organizations and private individuals throughout the state.

“The county is already well on the way to addressing many of the failing systems already and has plans to continue — it’s actually something we’re very proud of,” he said.

“Anyone in and around the inland bays watershed will tell you that taking those in-ground systems, some being 40 or 50 year old septic pools, off line and putting them in an environmentally sound wastewater system like the county provides has had a tremendous impact on the inland bays.”

Kent County administrator Michael Petit de Mange says Kent County has been making use of the same revolving fund for several years as well to help remediate failing septic systems in the central part of the state.

“We’re actively engaged in an ongoing basis on septic elimination projects and various locations throughout the county,” he said. “These are very expensive projects, so the state’s revolving loan fund has been a very beneficial to us in that regard.”

According to the Kent County Public Works Department, over the last five years at least 170 failing septic systems have been decommissioned and their users brought on to Kent County’s wastewater system. Some of these systems were used by communities rather than individual users.

They are currently at work on removing another 240 failing septic systems in the southern portion of the county.

Mr. Petit de Mange also notes that Kent County uses policy to address factors that contribute to water quality as well.

“Through our local land use codes we’ve done things we believe are helping mitigate the impacts of storm-water runoff, reestablish stream and river buffers that have been removed and preserve active agricultural land in a way that’s environmentally responsible,” he said. “All those kinds of things are ongoing and will continue whether or not this bill passes.”

Since passing an ordinance in March 2014, Kent County has taken over management of 22 stormwater systems belonging to Homeowners’ Associations throughout the county.

The Stormwater Maintenance District program provides an alternative to homeowner responsibility for long-term maintenance of stormwater infrastructure within subdivisions and land developments, and relieves homeowners of the burden of minor and major maintenance. A dozen more Homeowners’ Associations are currently in the application phase to have their systems taken into county management.

Regardless, Mr. Petit de Mange holds a similar opinion to Mr. Lawson on the proposed bill.

“Obviously the bill and its goals are important — over time, we have impaired waterways, natural streams and groundwater,” he said. “A bill that would result in cleaner water is good public policy, but the issues of how to finance it, where the funds will come from and who will have access to them may make it somewhat challenging for legislators to pass it.”

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