The Clean Water Act, Trump, and the 'Rain Tax'

A new law in New Jersey has been creating quite a buzz. The headlines read, "New Jersey residents face possible 'rain tax'. What's a rain tax?

It's not a new term or a new idea. There are so-called rain taxes in Pennsylvania and Maryland. There's an El Paso rain tax. The Howard County rain tax. The list goes on and on. What is it?

All this was born out of the Clean Water Act. What is the Clean Water Act and what has the Clean Water Act accomplished? It's certainly gotten political. Environmental groups have accused Trump of abandoning key parts of the Clean Water Act.

So, what's the truth in all this?

Doesn't everybody want clean drinking water? We take it for granted, but if it wasn't available, I'm pretty sure everybody would care.

As a kid I remember playing in the creek. It was something we did, without supervision! That's practically considered child abuse today!

I also remember pollution, lots of pollution. At one point in my life growing up we lived near the Schuylkill river. One summer we were down playing by the river and I remember my mother being upset about the danger but also about us playing in that dirty water.

That was outside Philadelphia in West Conshohocken. It was an old mill town and the factory buildings down by the river would just dump polluted water in the river. There were huge pipes that would just constantly dump nasty polluted water into the river.

Its amazing people thought this was ok. Especially since even as a kind, one of the earliest lessons I learned was don't pee upstream from your camp! Even back then people realized the danger of polluted drinking water.

Fast forward to today and we don't see that kind of pollution anymore. It's been stopped.

So why do we need a rain tax? Maybe you've heard the latest buzz about New Jersey. But this isn't unique to New Jersey. Lots of places have taxes that are used to fund clean water programs. The term "rain tax" is something that was invented by republican groups to vilify the additional tax.

So, what's the deal? What's the real deal on this?

There’re two issues that are being confused in this story. One is taxes, the other one is clean water. That's the first problem. There two separate issues. People don't want dirty drinking water, but they also don't want higher taxes.

The second problem is the lack of awareness and education on the problem. I've seen the effects of poor water run-off practices and what's done to lakes, rivers and streams. It's the same problem that's causing massive deterioration to larger bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, The Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and even coastal ocean waters.

Today most small creeks in urban are dead. It's the same story around the country. Not all the circumstances are the same, but the root causes are the same. Most of it has to do with poor water run-off control practices.

Let me make this real simple. It doesn't take a biology degree or an engineering degree to understand this.

Here's the problem. When the area, the land around a stream or a lake or whatever, when that land is natural. It's trees, it's bushes, it's grasses. When it rains, the water mostly soaks into ground and it's filtered through the vegetation. Simple, right? It's a natural filtering system. It's a natural flood control system.

When the land around water is developed. When people build houses and buildings and roads it creates hard surfaces. Roofs, roads, parking lots, and lawns. Lawns are a big environmental problem all their own. The increase runoff and all the fertilizer pollute the water.

The rain hits the hard surfaces and it runs right off very fast. That causes massive peak flows. Those peak flows do three things.

  1. One, it causes erosion. It washes away the soil. Some if it settles in the bottom of the streams, lakes, bays, rivers. It clogs it up. It disrupts the nutrients that naturally occur in the bottom of a body of water and it disrupts the microorganisms that are the beginning of the food chain.

  1. Two, it causes downstream flooding which is a problem not really related to clean water.

  1. Three, it cleanses the streams. It washes all the life right out of the creeks, rivers and streams. It's like taking a firehouse to the stream. It completely washes away all the life in the creak.

This is all caused by hard surfaces, impervious coverage is the technical term. It doesn't allow the water to soak into the ground. It eliminates the natural filtering process that the vegetation provides.

On top of that there's a problem with pollutants. All that stuff that's getting washed off in the rain is contaminated. I'm not trying to be dramatic. But, think about it. How dirty is a roof, a road a parking lot? There’re chemicals, trash, oil, rubber, plastic, all kinds of stuff that's getting washed into the streams and ends up making its way somewhere. Either to a river or a lake or the ocean.

People like to live near water. It's the first place that gets built out. There’re massive areas of land that have been covered with pavement, roofs and concrete all little by little adding to the problem.

There was never a proper effort to deal with that run off. Even 20 years ago the engineering and science was way behind the problem.

Most of the lakes, streams and bays in this country are badly compromised. What does that mean? It means they're not healthy. No fish, no animals, lack of plant life normal to a healthy water way.

So how did this get to the point of a rain tax?

It's called the Clean Water Act. An old law adopted in 1972.

The Clean Water Act is a U.S. federal law that regulates the discharge of pollutants into the nation's surface waters, including lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and coastal areas. The Clean Water Act is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets water quality standards, handles enforcement, and helps state and local governments develop their own pollution control plans.

This federal law and the EPA set guidelines for state and local governments. That's what's driving everything including this so-called rain tax.

The original goal of the Clean Water Act was to eliminate the discharge of untreated waste water from municipal and industrial sources and to make American waterways safe for swimming and fishing.

The federal government provided billions of dollars in grants to finance the building of sewage treatment facilities around the country. The Clean Water Act also required businesses, like factories to apply for federal permits to discharge pollutants into waterways, as well as to reduce the amount of their discharges over time.

The Clean Water Act has been credited with significantly reducing the amount of pollution that enters the nation's waterways from "point sources," or municipal and industrial discharges. As of 1998, 60 percent of American lakes, rivers, and shoreline were considered clean enough for swimming and fishing.

It worked! It fixed the problems that I witnessed in the 70's. The streams and rivers and lakes were cleaned up.

"In the years following passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA largely succeeded in stemming the 'point source' discharges of big industrial and municipal offenders, whose pipes spewed chemicals directly into oceans, rivers, lakes, and streams,"

All good right? Not so fast.

"It has become clear, however, that 'point source' pollution is only part of the problem."

By the late 1990s, the EPA had changed its focus under the Clean Water Act to emphasize eliminating nonpoint source pollution, like chemicals from agricultural runoff or erosion from logging or construction activities. In a 2000 report to Congress, the EPA cited these diffuse sources of pollution as the top factors making the remaining 40 percent of the nation's waterways too polluted for swimming or fishing.

As scientists increasingly recognized the value of wetlands, naturalized vegetation, in filtering out pollution, the EPA also began to emphasize wetlands protection under the Clean Water Act.

Businesses must be aware of the expanding applications of the Clean Water Act. The law can affect not only discharges of pollution from factory pipes, but also incidental pollution resulting from the activities of smaller enterprises, such as residential development or the construction of a golf course or office building.


So how did all this lead to more taxes? The water isn't polluted like it was in the 70's most of that has been cleaned up. You can drink the water, you can swim in the water. So, what's the problem?

The problem is the creeks are dead. It's not just the creeks it's rivers and lakes, bays and coastlines that are dying off. It's having a massive impact on the eco-system.

That's what caused environmental groups to file lawsuits. They filed lawsuits to force the regulatory agencies to enforce their interpretation of the Clean Water Act. In fact, it led to changes in the law.

Out of that was created something called Total Maximum Daily Loads. I'm not going to get into all the technical details of that, but it created different standards in how clean water is measured.

Some of these regulations were ridiculously stringent. Meaning oppressively costly to deal with. A ton of regulation was added especially during the Obama administration. The environmentalists pushed full steam ahead.

I don't think the idea behind the initiative was bad. What was bad is that they totally disregarded the cost impact. Trump has rolled a lot of this back and now you have people accusing him of poisoning the water. None of that's true but it's also not true that this isn't a problem. It's a very real problem. The question is what do we do about it?

The cost burden is intense. Even a small town could face a twenty million dollar bill to comply with these laws. The city of Philadelphia has a billion dollar, ten year program. That's a massive cost. How does that get paid for?

That's where this so-called "rain tax" comes into play. This New Jersey law isn't a tax at all. It's a law that allows local governments to create tax structures to pay for their clean water improvement programs.

That's what the law would do: Very simple. It ALLOWS local governments to create storm water utilities and allows those storm water utilities to enact new taxes to pay for their operation.

People don't like taxes. How much more are we supposed to pay? Taxes in this country between all the federal, state, local, sales tax, phone tax, gas tax, real estate tax. All of it. It runs Eighteen thousand dollars per person.

Eighteen thousand dollars every year, for every man, woman and child. So yeah, when government starts talking about new taxes people get a little freaked out.

Here's the other problem in all this. The influence. They're labeled environmentalists but some of them are just opportunists. Scientists hoping for grant funding. They have to create a need for the studies. Engineers that design the projects. Colleges and universities that create programs and degrees and make money from research grants. Lawyers. Lawyers working for the government. Lawyers working for environmental groups to sue the government. Lawyers working for industry to sue government and more lawyers working for the government to defend the government from all the lawsuits. It's insane.

All these people that stand to gain a lot by way of fees and funding create an incredible lobby. Who's making sure the money's spent wisely? Who's making sure the proposed solutions will work or that it's the most economical way to solve the problem?

Don't think it's the politicians.

We need clean water. These natural habitats must be protected and preserved. We must learn how to live on the planet without destroying it. Republicans agree with that. It's the tax part that gets people upset.

Unfortunately, we're left with a massive special interest lobby that's attached itself to the democrat party. All driven by a desire for more money rather than looking for cost effective solutions. But that's the way it is with everything in government. We ought to be demanding efficient, effective government. Not a liberal or a conservative government. A common sense government.

That's the fear that more taxes will only lead to more taxes. Because that's the way it always goes. Yes, we need to clean up the water, but we also need to spend the tax money we already pay wisely.

If we could stop the bickering, educate people on the problem in simple terms and find the money from existing budgets this could get done. It would make the environment better, and if that's truly the goal, that's what needs to happen.

I hope this sheds some light on all this. I don't look at through the lens of a political party. I just look at it how it makes sense.

If you want to help the environment. Cut back on single use plastic like plastic bottles and plastic bags. Plant a tree. Let some of your yard grow naturally. Install rain barrels. If everybody did one small thing every year, we wouldn't need to raise taxes to fix it.

Christopher Scott is the author of Common Sense and Host of the Christopher Scott Show Talk Radio Podcast.

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