BALTIMORE – The Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund has collected over $58.2 million through the Bay Restoration Fee, or “flush tax”, since its inception Jan. 1, 2005, according to Maryland Department of the Environment officials.
About 88 percent of that figure, or $51.4 million, came from a $2.50 monthly charge tacked onto the water bills of property owners who use municipal water or sewer systems. The remaining 12 percent, or $6.9 million, came from a controversial $30 tax collected yearly from Maryland residents with septic systems.
MDE will be ready by April to take citizens’ requests for state subsidies to upgrade the state’s estimated 40,000 failing septic systems. By July the first upgrades, which will reduce leaching of harmful nutrients into groundwater, will be underway, predicts Jay Prager, deputy program manager in the MDE Water Management Administration’s Wastewater Permits division.
All but three Maryland counties have already collected this year’s septic tax, and the remaining three – Baltimore, Montgomery and Anne Arundel Counties – will do so in July, Jag Khuman, director of MDE’s Maryland Water Quality Financing Administration said.
Sixty percent of the $6.9 million collected from septic system users, according to documents from the Comptroller’s office, will go to MDE, which will distribute money to help fund the system upgrade.
No money has been awarded through the septic system upgrade program so far, but any property owners who may want to take advantage of funds in the future can express interest in doing so on the MDE website, Prager said.
The remaining 40 percent of the septic users’ fees will go to the Department of Agriculture to fund cover crop programs across the state, according to the Comptroller’s office’s statement.
Cover crops are grown during off-seasons on unused farmland to decrease soil erosion and nutrient runoff, two major contributors to Bay sickness.
So far, over 135,000 acres of cover crops have been planted through the program, Michele Esch, a program assistant in the Conservation Grants Office at the Maryland Department of Agriculture said, a result of almost $1 million worth of fall payments the department made to farmers from the fund.
The remaining $51.3 million the fund has collected is designated to wastewater treatment plant improvements. A total of 66 major sewage treatment plants have been selected to have technology installed that will reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous they discharge.
Of the targeted plants, one has been completely upgraded and is currently in operation, seven upgrades are under construction, 40 are under design or being planned, and 18 are still engaged in pre-planning activities.
As of January 31, about $32 million had been awarded through the wastewater treatment plant upgrade program, of which a quarter has been dispersed.
Once the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund program is in full swing, Khuman estimates that it will bring in $72 million a year: $60 million for wastewater plant upgrades and $12 million split between the cover crop and septic system initiatives.
The fund will fall short of that estimate this year, Khuman said, because “the first year is always transitional”, but he says that next year it should be more in line with his estimate.
The entire plant upgrade program will cost between $750 million and $1 billion by fiscal year 2011, the goal for full program implementation, Khuman said.
The MDE will issue bonds, he said, in order to cover costs that far exceed the money the fund will collect in that period of time.
The $72 million the fund will bring in yearly after the bonds are issued will go towards paying them off, which Khuman estimates will take between 15 and 20 years after they are issued. He added that the Bay Restoration Fee collection program is not set to end on a certain date. “It is a perpetual fund,” Khuman said. “It does not have a sunset.”