DOVER — Dirty water.
It’s an image that brings to mind many things: chemicals, trash, mud. While some of these may not be readily apparent in Delaware, others are.
The state’s waterways are polluted. Many are unsafe: 94 percent of Delaware’s rivers and 74 percent of its ponds cannot support healthy fish populations, according to state officials.
Eighty-six percent of rivers and 41 percent of ponds are dangerous to swim in.
At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency rates the vast majority of the state’s waterways as impaired, meaning they do not meet the quality requirements set by state administrators.
Other states have struggled with water pollution: Maryland, with the Chesapeake Bay and its unhealthy dead zones; and Ohio and the infamous Cuyahoga River fire of 1969.
In Delaware, pollutants from industry going back well over 50 years have harmed the quality of the state’s waterways, officials said. The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cites runoff from roads, farm waste and septic pollutants as additional factors having a deleterious effect.
With water playing a pivotal role in numerous industries — fishing, agriculture, tourism — to say nothing of its impact on a population’s health, officials, environmentalists and scientists are pushing for greater funding to help purify the state, from Delmar to Arden.
Upgrading wastewater plants, growing crops that can reduce erosion and, of course, cleaning up polluted bodies are key parts of DNREC’s efforts.
But mass purification projects take money. Lots of money. Your money. That was the driving force behind Gov. Jack Markell’s 2014 Clean Water Initiative.
The idea would have added a fee totaling between $45 and $85 per year for a single-family household on a half-acre of land. In turn, the state could have brought in $30 million to go with $120 million in federal grants and borrowed funds.
While backed by DNREC and environmentalists, the push failed to gain support.
“If anything could have been less popular to the gas tax, this thing was even less popular than the gas tax,” Gov. Markell said last month at the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce Legislative Luncheon. “I set a pretty high bar in terms of unpopular proposals, and this one like exceeded that.”
The governor’s proposals for a 10-cent per gallon gasoline tax hike and a water fee were met with firm refusal from lawmakers of both parties. They criticized the state’s chief executive for not giving them a heads-up and for dumping tax hike bills on them in an election year.
Gov. Markell, a Democrat, took his lumps while advocating for the plans but, as he said at the luncheon, he was able to recognize the writing on the wall.
The money question
DNREC continues to monitor and work to clean the state’s rivers, lakes and ponds, but with Delaware’s state government in a financial crunch, its resources are limited.
Standing in front of several lawmakers and dozens of business professionals at the luncheon, Gov. Markell, seeming both defiant and chastened, explained his rationale for the fee proposal.
“I didn’t propose anything in broad terms. I propose things in very specific terms and to address a specific problem, which is our water’s dirty and our streets flood.”
Bayhealth’s Kent General Hospital risks being flooded and damaged during heavy storms, he said, and with rivers and lakes that are “unfishable, unswimmable,” something, he insists, has to be done.
The proposal’s failure, Gov. Markell insinuated, can be traced to a cousin of NIMBY — “not in my backyard.”
Everyone wants a cleaner environment, but no one wants to pay for it, he said.
But legislators believe the idea was flawed from the beginning.
“As presented to us, it was a very scatter-gun approach, shotgun approach, to the water tax issue,” Minority Leader
Sen. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said at the event. “There was no definitive numbers attached to it. It was trying to solve about six different issues throughout the state.”
The water tax is dead now, according to officials. The governor has made it clear he will not be the one to bring the proposal back, and lawmakers do not seem particularly interested in backing it themselves.
But some Delawareans are trying to resurrect it. More pertinently, they believe there is popular support for it.
The Delaware Nature Society conducted a poll they say found 57 percent of respondents were willing to pay a small amount of money for cleaner water. Brian Winslow, the organization’s executive director, said the proposed water fee would have cost most people only a few dollars per month.
To promote clean water, the society has joined with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary and Center for the Inland Bays, seeking to encourage residents to endorse the idea of a water fee.
“We live in a state surrounded by water,” Mr. Winslow said. “We recreate in it, people use it in their daily lives.”
Comparing water funding to recycling, Mr. Winslow said he thinks people can be brought onboard, given time.
“I really like the way the governor put it last year when he introduced this,” he said. “At the rate we’re going it’s going to take 100 years. We can get this done in a generation” with an increased focus and additional funds.
A historic remediation effort at Dover’s Mirror Lake using activated carbon has been successful so far, officials said in February. The governor touted the plan as an “innovative project” during his speech a month later.
Dr. Gerald Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware’s Water Resources Center, gives the state a C- overall for its water quality. He said northern Delaware tends to have cleaner rivers and ponds. Because it shares a watershed with neighboring states, Delaware is in a similar situation to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, he said.
DNREC aims to have 90 percent of lakes and rivers safe for swimming by 2030, while Dr. Kauffman believes the state can do even better.
“I say that we can clean up 90 percent of the waterways in 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Cleaner water, according to DNREC, could reduce flooding and create thousands of jobs. The biggest issue is simply funding.
While the coalition aims to convince lawmakers to support a water fee, the March event was a strong indication of the feelings harbored by members of the General Assembly.
“If it is that significant of a problem, then let’s reallocate resources from the current General Fund, reprioritize, address the situation,” said Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden.
“I have a challenge with it if it’s looking at our waterways: Are we talking about the Chesapeake Bay, are we talking about rivers or streams, are we talking about climate change? How are we going to fundamentally address these issues whenever we’re just one piece of a larger puzzle?”