Fox News is attacking a new Maryland anti-pollution measure as a “rain tax,” adopting the misleading frame of local politicians. But the program doesn't tax rain -- it taxes surfaces that lead to more pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, a vital ecosystem that generates major revenue for surrounding states.
The program was signed into law in 2012 to meet an Environmental Protection Agency-issued pollution diet for the states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The diet was required under the national Clean Water Act and instituted in response to “continued poor water quality” in the Bay. In order to pay for pollution management and habitat restoration, Maryland is instituting fees based on paved surfaces, which funnel a huge amount of pollution-laden stormwater runoff into gutters, eventually contributing to algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill fish and shellfish.
But following the lead of some local politicians, Fox News is misleadingly labelling it as a “rain tax,” attacking the program on nine different Fox News or Fox Business programs between April 11 and 14. For instance, Neil Cavuto criticized the program on his Fox Business show, incorrectly characterizing it as a fee levied because some homes “disproportionately benefit from mother nature”:
But Maryland's plan does not tax households that receive more rainfall -- it taxes surfaces that ferry more pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. As the EPA explains, the great size of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in comparison to the Bay itself -- “a ratio much higher than any other comparable watershed in the world” -- makes it “highly susceptible to actions taken on the land, including those associated with agriculture, development, transportation and wastewater treatment.” A significant amount of the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that reaches the Bay from stormwater runoff comes from Maryland. Plain soil acts as something of a filter and buffer for this pollution, and impervious surfaces take that benefit away.
This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) graphic of “suspended matter” runoff that flowed into the Chesapeake following a heavy 2011 rainfall shows how sediment and other substances can wash into the bay in significant quantities after a storm. NOAA noted: “Management practices that will bring about long-term reduction in sediment and nutrient pollution from upstream agricultural and urban/suburban sources, will have a positive impact on the Bay by making the Bay more resilient when catastrophic events occur.”
While each municipality is still determining how much the stormwater runoff program will cost, it is likely to generate substantial economic benefits. A 2004 update of a 1989 University of Maryland study estimated that the Bay is worth more than $1 trillion including fishing and recreation revenue. More recently, NOAA estimated that Maryland and Virginia saw $268 million in commercial fishery catches in 2011 alone, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated over $535 million in annual expenditures related to recreational fishing just in Maryland. Much of this is imperiled if we don't curb pollutant runoff that chokes off plant and animal life in the Bay.