Cooperation is a term used far too rarely in governance today. Thanks to a newly enacted law that I authored, however, that term now perfectly describes the newly clarified collaborative relationship between federal, state, county, and local governments in cleaning up stormwater pollution that emanates from their respective properties.
Stormwater runoff is the largest source sector for many imperiled bodies of water across the country and poses a grave threat to our environment and public health. Annually, hundreds of thousands of pounds of pollutants wash off the hardened surfaces in urban areas and into local rivers and streams. For example, a one-acre parking lot produces about 16 times the volume of runoff that comes from a one-acre meadow. Pollutants from this type of runoff can include heavy metals, nitrogen and phosphorous, oil and grease, pesticides, bacteria (including deadly E. coli), sediment, toxic chemicals, and debris—hardly substances we want in our waters. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), stormwater pollution affects all types of water bodies including, in order of severity, ocean shoreline, estuaries, Great Lakes shorelines, lakes, and rivers. Degraded aquatic habitats are found everywhere that stormwater enters local waterways.
This issue hits particularly close to me as a Senator from Maryland, which is home to the nation’s largest estuary—the Chesapeake Bay. Stormwater runoff is indeed the fastest growing source of pollution to the Bay and its rivers, threatening the natural resource that is so crucial to my state’s environment, economy, and livelihood.
Given the devastating environmental impact of stormwater pollution, one would expect federal entities that own properties from which stormwater pollution originates to pay normal and customary stormwater fees to localities that are required to control and abate this pollution. Until recently, this was not the case. Some federal agencies argued that the Clean Water Act’s provision requiring federal properties to pay water utility bills did not include stormwater fees, simply because these fees were not explicitly mentioned in the law. This belief was patently untrue. Stormwater fees are classified as water utility bills, and some federal agencies like the Department of Treasury have already recognized this by paying stormwater fees to local governments. Many federal entities, however, have neglected their legal responsibility to pay for the stormwater pollution they caused. As a result of this ambiguity about federal responsibility to pay stormwater fees, the onus to pay for stormwater pollution cleanup was unduly and unfairly placed on local entities. Local governments were losing critical payments to their stormwater control programs.
Maintaining this uncertain and imbalanced state of affairs not only overburdens localities—it also needlessly jeopardizes the health of our water, our environment, and of our citizens. Because of this, I decided to introduce legislation to once and for all clarify the federal government’s responsibility to pay for the stormwater pollution it causes. At stake is a fundamental issue of equity: polluters should be financially responsible for the pollution that they cause. That includes Uncle Sam. Specifically, my legislation amends the Clean Water Act so that it explicitly requires federal entities to pay stormwater cleanup fees. Federal agencies should pay these fees using annual congressional appropriated funds, just as they do for their other utility bills. Senators George Voinovich (R-OH), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined me as cosponsors of this legislation, which was first introduced last June and signed into law by President Obama in January of this year.
The positive impact of this new law will be felt in jurisdictions nationwide, including in the District of Columbia, which will collect $2.6 million in stormwater fees from federal facilities in the coming year. Additionally, revenues from this legislation are expected to help finance green jobs, exemplifying the crucial, mutually beneficial relationship between a healthy environment and a strong economy.
Moving forward, localities now have a strong partner in the federal government, who will work with them to ensure a more environmentally responsible future. I can only hope that collaboration becomes the norm rather than the exception as we continue to address environmental issues in the future. There is simply too much at stake for us to fail to work together.