Proposed fee to clean waterways revived

A skimmer flies over wetlands at Fowler Beach. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — In 2014, Gov. Jack Markell proposed an annual fee paid by residents and businesses that would fund the cleanup of Delaware’s polluted waterways.

The initiative would have charged homeowners $45 per year while owners of large buildings would have paid up to $25,000.

The plan, officials said, could have brought in $30 million a year.

The idea went over like a lead balloon. One might even say it sunk like a stone.

However, it did inspire some legislators to begin looking at a funding mechanism to purify the First State’s rivers, lakes, ponds and streams and to prevent flooding.

After creating a task force that spent nearly a year discussing water issues, they unveiled legislation in December.

House Bill 270 would create a dedicated fund filled with new surcharges placed on Delaware businesses and individuals.

A fee of up to $40 would be added to individual tax returns, while couples filing a joint return would pay up to $80.

Business licenses would cost $45 more than they currently do.

The new taxes could generate up to $20 million per year for government while potentially bringing in millions more through investments.

It’s a measure supporters claim is sorely needed.

“Our economy depends on clean water, our health depends on clean water, our property values depend on clean water,” said Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Newark.

According to a 2015 Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control report, 377 bodies of water — more than 90 percent of the state’s waterways — fall short of water quality standards because of pollution.

Water splashes from the spillway at Wagamons Pond in Milton. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

That pollution stems from a variety of sources, such as fertilizer washed into waterways, toxins pumped into waterways by large corporations, salt used to prepare the roads ahead of snowstorms and animal droppings left on the ground.

Those factors mean that many Delawareans who grew up fishing or swimming in bodies of water up and down the state can no longer safely do so.

“The quality of the water in Delaware is dismal. It’s a serious public health and environmental issue,” Chris Bason, executive director of the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, wrote in an email.

“There’s been progress in cleaning up many waters in the state. But because the problem is so large, there remains a great deal of work to be done before our waters are safe to drink, swim in and once again support a diversity and abundance of fish and shellfish that are safe to eat.”

According to the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, Delaware’s water and natural resources have an economic impact of between $2 and $6.7 billion annually.

In addition to the new fees, House Bill 270 would create a Clean Water Trust. Overseen by four cabinet secretaries and one individual appointed by the governor, the Clean Water Trust would prioritize projects with the assistance of the Water Infrastructure Advisory Council.

The bill strives to limit new bureaucracy by preventing more than 12 percent of revenue from being used for administrative purposes initially. After the first two years, only 10 percent of money could be earmarked for administrative costs.

Reaction

While some describe the bill as necessary, the measure is not expected to pass this year.

Creating or raising a tax in an election year is always dicey, and after legislators were unable to pass an income tax hike last year in the face of a shortfall, the chance of House Bill 270 finding success in 2018 is slim to none.

One Republican — House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson, of Hockessin — is listed as a co-sponsor, but most members of the GOP are expected to oppose the bill.

“I think it sets a terrible precedent for specific taxes. So, we’ll do $40 for that, we’ll do $50 for this, we’ll do $75 for my favorite thing,” Senate Minority Whip Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said, describing what he thinks might happen in the future if the bill becomes law.

Plenty of worthy causes, such as education and addiction exist, but taxpayers should not be expected to bear the burden for all of them, he said. Instead, Sen. Lavelle said, officials should make greater efforts to cut spending and find money in the budget.

House Minority Leader Danny Short, R-Seaford, said he would rather see legislators put funding toward farmland and forest preservation. State law calls for allocating $10 million annually to the Farmland Preservation Fund, but lawmakers last set aside that amount for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013.

The fund has been given a total of $13.5 million over the past five fiscal years.

“I think it does have merit with regard to how there would be funding for initiatives that could provide the essence of clean water or funding for entities to be able to improve that aspect,” Rep. Short said.

“I’m not really convinced yet that we’re in this what I would call rosy world of finances, so I think it’s really too early to judge whether that would be acceptable to folks, and it is a tax, so that creates a problem for folks with regard to how their lives are handled from a day-to-day basis.”

A spokesman for Gov. John Carney wrote in an email Gov. Carney “looks forward to following legislative debate on the bill.”

He shared nothing more about the governor’s views on the proposal.

DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin said the agency is currently working to determine which waterways most need assistance. Delaware has made big strides in water quality in recent years and will soon issue a new advisory on how many fish it is safe to eat from the state’s rivers, lakes, ponds and streams, he said.

Asked his thoughts on the bill, Mr. Garvin largely deferred, saying DNREC is doing its best with the resources it has.

Everyone sees water as crucially important, but stark differences separate legislators on House Bill 270.

“It’s just like any other government service,” said Rep. Mike Mulrooney, D-New Castle. “There’s a cost to it.”

Sen. Townsend had a similar view, saying “There is basically zero reason not to want to invest more money.”

Taxpayers, however, may be reluctant to open their wallets, even if they view the cause as an important one.

Gov. Markell in 2015 attributed his proposal’s failure to a variant of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”): Everyone wants a cleaner environment, but few people want to pay for it.

Although the bill aims to avoid growing government too much, Sen. Lavelle is worried it will create additional bureaucracy and lead to more taxes earmarked for very specific things.

“Nobody wants dirty water. That’s just a strawman argument,” he said.

He compared the Clean Water Trust to the Sustainable Energy Utility, a state-created nonprofit that has been the source of several fierce debates between Republican and Democratic legislators (particularly Sen. Lavelle and Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington).

Sen. Lavelle is working on a bill that would take funding from the SEU and place it back in the state’s General Fund. Some of that money could be set aside for water projects, he noted.

The governor’s recommended budget earmarks $3 million each for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a sum Sen. Townsend sees as a good start but not nearly enough.

“We have to dedicate funding basically to a 15-, 20-year effort,” he said.

According to state officials, more than half a billion dollars is needed for water investments over the next five years alone.

Dian Taylor, president and CEO of Artesian Water, sent a letter to lawmakers last week urging them to vote against the bill.

“Without a complete recitation of a number of additional objections to the bill (including the need to have specific legislative criteria regarding which projects would qualify for state funding, demonstration that those receiving loans can repay all amounts loaned, the need to assure that no members of WIAC is receiving a direct or indirect financial benefit from recommended grants or loans made — and many others) Artesian opposes HB 270,” she wrote.

“The bill creates a special water tax on Delaware citizens and a special fund controlled by a handful of unelected individuals, as the solution to water quality and infrastructure challenges faced by the state.”

In 2017, David Small, then the secretary of DNREC, told lawmakers Delaware has “kicked the can down the road” by failing to treat waterways.

Water, water everywhere

Water woes can be traced back to a couple of factors.

Water infested with too many nutrients — primarily nitrogen and phosphorus ­— can lead to algae, which can kill fish and other animals and make it unsafe for humans to drink.

Meanwhile, chemicals from industry have also polluted waterways.

“We have abused Mother Nature to the point where the natural filter … can’t always keep up,” Sen. Townsend said.

Although more attention is now being paid to water quality, years of neglect and ignorance mean unclean water is all too common in the state.

Much of the pollution is nonpoint source, which has various causes, including herbicides, oil, salt and excrement. Those substances are carried into rivers, lakes, streams and ponds when it rains.

As more land is developed, natural buffers like trees and other plants become scarcer, and more water runs over roads, driveways and sidewalks, depositing pollutants in the land and bodies of water. Erosion also becomes a bigger threat.

With more money, the state can invest in treating bodies of water and upgrading infrastructure, such as storm drains.

Citing Mirror Lake in Dover, Sen. Townsend pointed to advances in technology as helping enable clean-up.

DNREC dumped 79 tons of SediMite, a carbon-based substance, in the lake in 2014 and began seeing big results within a year. The lake had suffered for decades, with runoff carrying chemicals, bacteria and excess nutrients into the water.

A year later, DNREC reported a 60 percent reduction in polychlorinated biphenyl. That decrease would have taken 20 years had it not been for the activated carbon treatment, according to the agency.

Pollution is not the only issue. More funding can help combat flooding as well.

As the lowest-lying state in the country, Delaware is particularly susceptible to sea level rise. Meanwhile, poor drainage in places like Dover’s aptly named Water Street means that heavy rain can cause several inches of water to gather on the road, making it dangerous to drive.

Bayhealth’s Kent General Hospital has almost been flooded before, with water rising in a matter of minutes during particularly strong storms.

Fortunately, the average Delaware resident can be part of the solution. Things as simple as planting cover crops, picking up dog poop and composting can help fight pollution.

“There are things that people don’t recognize if they can’t see the water, they don’t necessarily think the activities they’re doing on the ground impact the water,” Mr. Garvin said.

“And so, looking at what they do fertilizing the lawns, making sure they’re not changing their oil into the sewers. Even just trash. Trash makes its way into our water bodies and has an ecological impact. So, it’s kind of all of those things that we build together to improve our water quality.”

Some residents received a chilling notice on the importance of water quality Thursday, when the state announced it will provide bottled water to people living in Blades after high levels of perfluorinated compounds were found in area wells. While the exact effect of PFCs, a substance used in many household items, is unknown, some studies have shown they can have a harmful impact on humans.

For environmental advocates, that’s just one of many examples of why cleaner water is needed.

Sen. Townsend grew impassioned as he detailed the bill, describing it as “a gold standard of a policy” that can fix Delaware’s “embarrassing” waterways. It’s an issue that cannot be ignored, and that means people will have to pay for it, he said.

“Whether it’s water quality or whether it’s flooding, we just have got to update our infrastructure. Our economy depends on it. In many cases, our health depends on it,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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