$45 annual fee proposed to clean Delaware water [video]

 (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

(Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Governor Jack Markell unveiled his plan to fund a clean-up of Delaware’s waterways, which includes an annual $45 service fee for residents.

From restrictions on eating fish caught in Delaware waters or a warning against swimming in lakes and rivers in the state, there’s no denying Delaware’s water is dirty. Now, after hinting at it during his State of the State Address, Governor Markell has revealed his plan to clean the state’s water.

“[It’s] unacceptable, and it’s embarrassing,” Markell said of the state of Delaware’s waterways. “Virtually none of Delaware’s waterways meet the water quality standards for their uses.”

Except for the beaches, nearly every Delaware waterway is unsafe for swimming and fishing. To fix that, Markell unveiled a plan for a $30 million fund called Clean Water for Delaware’s Future. Funding for the effort will come from $45 fee that will be added to homeowner’s county property tax bills. For owners of larger homes, the fee could be as much as $100.

Larger water users will pay a higher fee based upon their water usage, up to a maximum of $25,000.

Markell acknowledged the fight he may face in getting approval from state lawmakers for what amounts to a new tax on Delawareans, but he said that the time to act is now.

“I don’t think anybody in elective office particularly wants to stand before the General Assembly or before the public and say, ‘I’m recommending that you vote to increase, in this case, basically a $45 per year fee on folks in order to generate the money to clean the water.’ But you know what? We gotta clean the water. And it costs,” Markell said.

The stats

Delaware’s water is in dire need of help, according to the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. 

94 percent of rivers do not support healthy fish and aquatic life;
86 percent of rivers are not safe for swimming;
41 percent of lakes and ponds are not safe for swimming; 
74 percent of lakes and ponds do not support healthy fish and aquatic life.

DNREC Secretary Colin O’Mara said that while Delaware is making progress in cleaning dirty waterways, that progress is going much too slow to make a difference for the current generation.

“Right now, there’s many cases where you can look, but not touch,” O’Mara said. “We think that we can fix that within a generation.” 

O’Mara and Markell hope to get support for the increased fee by touting the benefits of cleaner water for public health and the economy.

“It’s going to be a lot  more expensive if we put this off,” O’Mara said. “When you compare the cost, $45 per year compared to a cable bill being $150 per month, we’re talking about a fraction [of that] for something that we use everyday whether it’s in the shower, drinking, or recreation.”

The $30 million will be combined with the state’s existing $30 million Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds. When leveraged together as a stable source of funding, O’Mara is confident the state will be able to borrow even more money at very low interest rates to fund hundreds of millions of dollars in projects. Those projects include: 

$500 million for wastewater/drinking water upgrades;
$150 million for stormwater management upgrades;
$75 million for toxins removal and stream restoration;
$75 million for industrial upgrades;
$30 million for agriculture cost-share;
$30 million for conservation and restoration.

Markell may have a tough sell to get state lawmakers to agree to add the fee to residents: He is also trying to get approval for a ten cent increase in the cost of a gallon of gas, a tax hike designed to help improve Delaware’s roads.

Republican state Senator Gary Simpson says now is the wrong time to add more bills on Delaware taxpayers. “We’re just asking too much of Delaware’s people in bad economic times. We’re putting another tax burden on homeowners and businesses at a time when we should be lowering costs and spurring economic development.”  Simpson acknowledges that Delaware has problems with dirty water, “But we need to address them at a time and a price that makes sense.”

Some lawmakers within Markell’s Democratic party have balked at the idea of raising the gas tax. It’s not immediately clear what the general consensus will be on the new clean water fee in Legislative Hall.

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