- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Calling the quality of Delaware waterways “unacceptable and embarrassing,” Gov. Jack Markell on Tuesday proposed an annual fee of up to $85 on Delaware households to pay for a comprehensive cleanup plan.

Owners of multifamily, commercial and industrial properties also would pay annual fees on a sliding scale, capped at $25,000, to help fund the administration’s initiative, which calls for cleaning up Delaware’s waterways within a generation.

“This is an ambitious goal, but we can do it if we have the essential resources,” Markell said.

Administration officials say the annual fees, which would be indexed to inflation and collected through county property taxes, would generate about $30 million annually. That money, combined with $30 million in annual funding currently available for existing clean water and drinking water loan programs, would in turn be used to leverage private capital and federal grants to generate $120 million in annual financing to speed the cleanup of Delaware’s rivers, lakes and bays.

Many of those waterways currently are so polluted that residents are advised not to swim in them or eat fish from them.

“I would be perfectly happy if I were not in the position where I’m recommending fee increases,” Markell said. “… But you know what, we’ve got to clean the water, and it costs.”

“We can’t pretend that this isn’t a problem and we can wait,” he added. “…. Sometime, somebody’s going to have to do it, and if we wait, it just gets more expensive.”

Imposing a new fee on homeowners and business owners, on top of his proposal to raise Delaware’s gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to pay for transportation projects, could be a tough election-year sell for Markell in the General Assembly.

“We’re just asking too much of Delaware’s people in bad economic times…. This is just the wrong time to be doing this, especially on the heels of a proposed 10-cent gas tax increase,” Senate Minority Leader Gary Simpson, R-Milford, said in a prepared statement. “There’s no denying we’ve got water quality issues here and throughout the United States. But we need to address them at a time - and a price - that makes sense.”

But administration officials say cleaning Delaware’s waterways is not just an environmental issue, but critical to the state’s economy, given the importance of clean water for everything from tourism and food production to crop irrigation and commercial fishing.

“This isn’t some abstract problem,” said state environmental secretary Collin O’Mara. “Water quality affects us all.”

O’Mara said the annual fee for single-family properties of a half-acre or less would be $45. Owners of residential properties between a half-acre and one acre would pay $65, and owners of larger single-family properties would pay $85.

Money from the new “Clean Water for Delaware’s Future” fund, would finance projects in six broad categories: upgrades of wastewater and drinking water systems, improvements to storm water management infrastructure, removal of toxic pollutants and stream restoration, industrial facility upgrades, agricultural cost-share programs, and conservation and restoration of wetlands, forests and other natural areas.

Administration officials say more than $500 million will be needed over the next five years simply for wastewater facility upgrades in Delaware, including removal of failing septic systems. Another $150 million is needed to improve storm water management systems, along with $75 million to remove toxic pollutants and restore streams, and an equal amount for upgrading industrial sites to reduce water pollution, officials said.

O’Mara said cleanup projects would be evaluated in public meetings by the state Water Infrastructure Advisory Council, which would make recommendations to his office. Reports on all expenditures and 5-year project plans would be provided annually to the General Assembly and to the public.

Administration officials have set a goal of making 90 percent of Delaware’s waterways safe for swimming by 2030 and having 90 percent of existing fish and shellfish consumption advisories lifted.

Currently, 94 percent of the state’s rivers and 74 percent of lakes and ponds cannot support healthy fish and aquatic life, officials said. Eighty-six percent of rivers and 41 percent of lakes and ponds are not safe for swimming.

Limbo Voss, a commercial fisherman and chairman of the state Shellfish Advisory Council, noted that residents are urged not to eat more than two meals a year of fish caught in the St. Jones river in Kent County.

“Which is an improvement,” he noted. “Twenty years ago you weren’t allowed any … I can’t help but think we can do a little better than that.”

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