MoCo stormwater management: Fix problems, don't make new ones

Montgomery County doesn’t have a choice about proceeding full speed ahead to do active stormwater collection and infiltration, observes advocate Kit Gage. So why does County Executive Ike Leggett advocate stopping many projects and needlessly re-inventing the process?


/By Kit Gage/ Montgomery County, like the rest of Maryland and particularly the developed parts of the Chesapeake region, is full of parking lots and roofs and other impervious surfaces.  All these hard surfaces have made for a relatively terrible environment – pollutants, worse flooding and droughts have been the result.  The federal Clean Water Act, enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Maryland, require us to create projects that help our rivers, creeks, and the whole area better Rain_Garden_commercial_2016-05-04_034.jpgabsorb stormwater.   Litigation has enforced doing this work.  So Montgomery County doesn’t have a choice about proceeding full speed ahead to do active stormwater collection and infiltration. 

Now County Executive Ike Leggett has announced that he wants to back off from these projects –  1) canceling a bunch of them, 2) flat lining the Water Quality Protection Charge, and 3) changing the way contractors will do these projects.  It makes no sense.  The county already has to do special projects because it didn’t do enough stormwater work. Mr. Leggett argues his concerns are inefficiencies and too great expenditures in the stormwater mitigation effort.  OK, let’s look at his solutions:

>1>He has cancelled 23 projects that are in process – already designed, locales evaluated, etc. – as inefficient and costly. The county could have finished all or most of these projects by getting bids from approved contractors, as it already does, and doing them quickly, efficiently and relatively inexpensively. Alternatively it could reconsider them one by one, perhaps shrinking or modifying some and completing them, and eliminating those with only small initial investment made and deemed too costly to complete.

>2>Ratepayers need to see where their dollars go to better understand the stormwater funding program. Departments that use WQPF money should be asked to clearly show the public how much money they get from the WQPF and how they spend it on watershed and water quality stewardship and restoration. Their efforts over recent years have helped them learn how to do them better, more quickly, and more cheaply.

>3>The county has now acknowledged it is not engaging in the Public-Private Partnership (P3) initially described. There is some evidence that some of the RFPs for “soup to nuts projects” – where the qualifying contractor has to perform design, construction and maintenance – limit the available contractors to only the biggest and might not provide the more effective and environmentally sensitive solutions that should be required for good stormwater collection, infiltration, and wildlife support.  Starting a brand new process for contracting is almost certain to be disruptive and inefficient, particularly to projects in process.  The county now has approved – and local – contractors.  Why abandon the existing contractor process?

Is there room for improvement?  Sure.  We could be planting lots more trees. We could do more projects like conservation rain_garden.jpglandscapes in peoples’ yards, schools, and other institutions.  We could be changing the way we handle turf – reducing use of pesticides and fertilizers at the source, mowing high, aerating and soil testing to have grass act better to capture and soak in stormwater.  These things are cheaper and easier to do.  But don’t take responsibility out of the hands of DEP.  There is lots of county support for these kinds of projects, including from many who have these improvements in front of their homes and in their neighborhoods. 

The County Executive and County Council should not act reflexively to bail on projects well along in the pipeline, and cut back on a program it is required to complete.

Let’s fix any problems, not create new ones.


Kit Gage is advocacy director for Friends of Sligo Creek. A version of this article first appeared April 3 in Seventh State.