MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md. Maybe repealing Maryland’s so-called rain tax wasn’t such a good idea after all. DC area residents have been shocked to learn that flooding in Ellicott City, Maryland caused millions of dollars in damage and two deaths this past Sunday.
This was the second occurrence of major flooding in that jurisdiction in the last two years. Now Howard County and maybe the state will be faced with rebuilding, repairing and replacing the many buildings affected.
But, what is the cause of this chronic problem?
Most of the old town, one of the oldest in Maryland, was built in a flood area. Floods have been endemic to it since records were kept. These floods were temporary and caused some damage, but people would recover from them. The small size of the town and the extensive wooded and farm areas around it would mitigate the effects of heavy downpours. This all changed when development reared its ugly head.
With the success of Columbia, one of the first modern “planned communities” in the country, just South of Ellicott City, the area became desirable as a commuter place. Baltimore is only a few miles East and Washington, DC and its suburbs only 45 minutes away. Howard County government was seduced by the explosive tax base that high and medium density developments would bring.
With time and a friendly county government, areas around Ellicott City that would naturally dampen the effect of storms were “developed.” Development means more paved areas and roofs that shed water. But such development also reduces the amount of water that plant life and soil can absorb. Typically, as any Civil Engineer/Hydrologist knows, when development takes place, the percentage of storm water runoff an area can absorb drops from around 80% to 30% or less.
That is, 50% of this water ends up in storm systems. If these do not exist or are inadequate, the area floods. You do not need an Engineering degree to observe that if you apply water to a lawn and a paved walkway, the lawn absorbs most of the water while the walkway absorbs little if any.
Because of the need for storm water management, the state of Maryland legislature passed a bill to implement a tax on paved surfaces in 2012. The bill was promptly and unfairly attacked by its detractors as a “rain tax.”
The problem with storm water runoff is not just the flow volume, but also the contaminants that it carries. Ultimately passed in 2012, the bill addressed both storm water flow and the prevention of contaminants from entering bodies of water and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. The nine counties in Maryland the bill affected gained the flexibility to implement it as their needs required.
Come the 2014 elections. Larry Hogan’s Republican campaign seized on the greed of developers, the ignorance of the constituents and the political conscience of elected officials to thwart the 2012 bill to his advantage. A barrage of ads featuring the “rain tax” ran everywhere in the state. These ads ridiculed the bill and its supporters, including the Democratic candidate, who was the state’s Lieutenant Governor. He also promised not to implement any new taxes and to repeal the “rain tax”.
Hogan won the election. He carried all rural counties that would probably had voted Republican anyway. But he also won some of the traditional Democratic counties like Howard. He immediately went about repealing the storm water fees, which he accomplished in his first year of office. Advice from this author and many others was not heeded.
Since then, Ellicott City has suffered two catastrophic floods, one in 2016 and a worse one this past Sunday. It is obvious that a bill passed in 2012, even if not repealed, would not have made any difference. But the real issue is this. Howard County lost six years it could have used to establish more technically sound policies addressing storm water runoff.
Post rain tax economic aftermath
So, who is going to pay for Ellicott City’s flood?
The governor and the legislature will probably not increase taxes in an election year. Any assistance by the state would have to come from emergency funds. So, as indicated by Hogan during his 2014 campaign, any tax increase would have to come at the county level. One wonders how much of the benefits the county received by being development-friendly will be upset by the costs of the floods. Penny wise and pound foolish would have said one of our founding fathers.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is a Civil Engineer. He lives in a county that has storm water management requirements and usually does not flood. He is in Twitter, (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).
—Above modified image used with permission from Twitter user Tommy @BigCatTA