Going green could mean creating jobs, Prince George’s officials say

June 26, 2013

Prince George’s County officials, bumping up against a Monday deadline to improve controls on storm water and polluting runoff that spills into local waterways, are proposing new fees and a management program they hope will also create jobs.

A 2009 lawsuit by environmental groups challenging state and federal management of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay is forcing several Maryland communities to do more to protect the bay and its tributaries.

The administration of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) recently announced its proposal, which must be approved by the County Council, to pay for a $1.2 billion program over the next decade to install new controls on county properties. The plans would cost homeowners up to $62 annually in fees but would give them a break if they did some storm-water management of their own. Homeowners and businesses would get credit for installing rain gardens with special plantings that soak up water or rain barrels to catch rain and reuse it or for planting a “green roof” to help slow and cleanse runoff.

Businesses and religious institutions also would be subject to the fee, which would be $372 per acre of impervious surface, the term for parking lots, blacktop and other surfaces that allow unfiltered water carrying oil, trash and other pollutants to spill into streams and rivers.

A large shopping center such as Bowie Town Center would pay about $12,000 annually and a small strip center would pay about $1,000 under the Baker administration plan, according to the proposed fees. A large church with extensive parking lots totaling about 18 acres would pay about $7,000, but small churches would pay a few hundred dollars annually.

The county hopes to outsource much of the work for storm-water management to a public-private corporation that would be set up under the supervision of a county-appointed board, whose members would come from government, industry and community organizations. That company would be responsible for overseeing the installation and management of thousands of storm-water devices that must be placed on public property. Across the county, officials estimate that at least 8,000 acres — most of it on public land — need some type of new controls on storm water and its polluting runoff.

Adam Ortiz, acting director of the county’s environmental resources department, estimates that the county will need 40,000 storm-water devices — rain barrels, rain gardens, water-absorbing sidewalks — to meet the mandate. He said the program would help improve water quality in streams and rivers and potentially spur the development of a “green” industry in the county.

“We see this as a massive jobs program,” he said.

Ortiz hopes that the demand for storm-water devices will attract companies to the county or spark the creation of ones. These companies would create and manufacture the devices. He estimates that the new industry could generate 5,000 jobs in the next decade in Prince George’s, based on modeling that the federal government did to estimate the effects of the recent stimulus program.

The lawsuit was filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, several public officials and watermen’s groups and was settled in 2010 with a mandate for the federal government and states near the bay to do more to control runoff, though some jurisdictions have challenged that.

While Prince George’s was the last Maryland jurisdiction to announce its plans to comply with the mandate from the lawsuit, it is the first to get permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set up the private-public enterprise to manage its program.

Other jurisdictions affected by the lawsuit are handling the storm-water work in-house and are not directly involving the private sector in its management. For Prince George’s, which operates under a tighter property-tax cap than many other nearby jurisdictions, coming up with $200 million needed between now and 2017 to install the first round of storm-water control is a big challenge. Officials hope that a private company will come in and offer to front approximately $80 million, which the county eventually would repay once it began collecting fees.

County officials also hope to create and expand training programs for workers in the new industry in tandem with the University of Maryland, Bowie State University and Prince George’s Community College.

A handful of communities in Prince George’s already taking steps to manage storm water were well ahead of the county government. In tiny Forest Heights, near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, basements used to flood almost every time there was a heavy rain.

About five years ago, the town began installing a green roof of water-absorbing plants on top of town hall to soak up rainwater. Several rain gardens with similar plantings as the roof were created around the building on the ground. Special paving stone, known as pervious pavement, was installed to absorb water more efficiently, rather than letting it wash away unfiltered.

Now, the flooding in private homes has abated, and there is less raging storm water spilling into nearby Oxon Run, a tributary of the Potomac River.

“We want to have zero runoff in a two-inch storm,” said Forest Heights Mayor Jacqueline Goodall, who rounded up more than $700,000 in state and federal grants to cover the cost of the town’s storm-water management.

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