Should we fix the problem, fix the blame – or just pour money down the drain?

Prince William County officials will raise one tax next Spring, even though 2011 is an election year for supervisors.  The stormwater “utility” will go up in the next budget.

Local officials will blame the Federal government.

Supervisors will posture even more about “stringent but unfunded” regulations to make our local waters safe for swimming/fishing/aquatic life (and to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay downstream).  Controlling stormwater pollution will impose excessive financial burdens on local government, so any stormwater utility increases are the fault of EPA, Congress, the President…

No one wants to pay more taxes, but who is to blame for our local stormwater problem?  Is it fair to blame the Feds?

In Prince William, wastewater treatment plants have been upgraded, and farmers have been implementing best management practices.  However pollution from stormwater is increasing.  Why?  Too much dirty water is flowing off pavement in subdivisions/shopping centers/roads.  As population grows, we keep converting fields/forests to new pavement rather than redeveloping places already paved.

In the 1980’s, Virginia committed to meet Clean Water Act standards so the Chesapeake Bay would be swimmable/fishable.  Starting then, Prince William officials could have done two things to minimize pollution and to minimize the future cleanup cost:

– Prince William officials could have protected local streams, requiring buffers and improved stormwater management standards.  Until the laws of physics are repealed and water runs uphill, pollution we put into small “intermittent” creeks will flow downstream to the larger “perennial” streams (and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay). However, supervisors protect only perennial streams with buffers in Prince William, and even those streams are at risk. The most recent example: supervisor approval to destroy a perennial stream near Neabsco Creek for the War Museum in Dale City.

– Prince William officials could have shaped where development occurs, and minimized the stormwater generated by new development. Instead, in the last 15 years supervisors chose to spread development to Route 15 and Linton Hall Road, requiring wider/new roads that generate even more stormwater runoff.  The most recent example: approval of the Avendale subdivision in the supposedly-protected Rural Area.

State and local officials have had 27 years to act since the Chesapeake Bay Agreement of 1983.  Prince William residents want our local creeks and drinking water reservoirs (Lake Manassas/Occoquan Reservoir) to meet Clean Water Act standards.  The requirement for our streams to be safe for swimming/fishing/aquatic life is common sense, not a new “gotcha” mandate from Washington bureaucrats.

County decisions have encouraged excessive stormwater pollution.  Supervisors have also stuck  taxpayers with the bill for cleanup, taking responsibility since 1994 for maintaining stormwater ponds in residential subdivisions.

The current stormwater utility raises about $5 million/year.  Are we getting our money’s worth?  Is raising taxes the first thing  to do, or does blame allocation come first?  Before supervisors bloviate about the Feds and increase the stormwater utility in the 2011-12 budget, they should look for cost-effective ways to avoid future stormwater pollution. When you are in a hole, quit digging.

There’s a great opportunity right now: adopt stronger stream protection standards in the new Environment Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, and start protecting intermittent streams.  It’s cheaper to prevent pollution than to clean it up. As the old saying goes, “a stitch in time saves nine.”

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