Partners in Stormwater Control
A coalition helps communities plan and fund efforts to curb flooding and clean up waterways
Mike McWilliams. Photograph, Rona Kobell
In the town of Oxford on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, stormwater has at times made streets impassable. A coalition of organizations has helped the town plan and fund solutions. Photograph Courtesy of Environmental Finance Center

WHEN THE RAINS FALL on Maryland's Eastern Shore and the tide is high, flooding is often not far behind. Some residents in Oxford move their cars to higher ground when the forecast predicts only light rain.

Like other low-lying coastal communities, Oxford has often endured flooding — the soil drains slowly and stormwater can linger for days, sometimes stranding residents in their homes. A stretch of Maryland Route 333, the main road into town, floods several feet deep; some people call it "Lake Oxford."

In 2012 town leaders set out to upgrade their aging stormwater-control system. What did the town actually need, what were the costs, and how were they to be paid? With a population of some 650, Oxford's leaders knew they needed outside help.

They obtained that help from two programs long affiliated with Maryland Sea Grant — the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, which Sea Grant helped establish in 1992, and Maryland Sea Grant Extension. Those groups and others that helped Oxford had formed a partnership in 2008 called the Watershed Assistance Collaborative (WAC) that to date has provided technical and financial expertise on stormwater management to more than 40 communities, including small ones like Oxford and large ones like Columbia. Two other key members of WAC are the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

In addition to flood control, a motivation for Oxford was helping to improve deteriorating water quality. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations for a "pollution diet" that would require communities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to curtail stormwater runoff. The agency wanted to reduce the amount of excess nutrients and sediments carried by runoff into Bay waters, where they harm the ecosystem.

Oxford began a planning process in 2012 with public meetings, where residents pored over maps and marked areas of the town where flooding was chronically bad.

Sean Williamson of the Environmental Finance Center studied potential engineering solutions for the stormwater problems and researched funding mechanisms to pay for them. In a 2013 report, he proposed that Oxford pay for needed improvements in stormwater management by creating a dedicated town fund financed by local revenues. Larger cities, like Baltimore and Annapolis, and smaller ones like Takoma Park had already levied fees to pay for these improvements. Such environmental-based fees, however, are unusual in smaller communities. In 2013, Berlin was the only Eastern Shore community that had one.

In 2014, the Oxford Town Commission created a Stormwater Management and Shoreline Protection Fund, financed by a surcharge to the town's property-tax rate. The surcharge raises $100,000 per year, but the Environmental Finance Center's report had identified stormwater projects costing more than two million dollars. Jen Dindinger, a watershed restoration specialist with Maryland Sea Grant Extension, shared information with Oxford's town manager about sources of grant funding that the town could pursue to pay for infrastructure projects.

A grant from the state of Maryland's CoastSmart Communities Initiative enabled Oxford to develop a master plan that prioritized proposed projects, and the town got another grant from the state's Watershed Assistance Grant Program (WAGP) to fund an engineering study.

Those planning efforts positioned Oxford to apply successfully for $650,000 from the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, which Maryland created to finance such large projects. That money, awarded in 2017, will pay for the installation of vegetated areas on town property that retain stormwater, reducing the amount that floods onto Maryland Route 333. These "bioretention" areas will also benefit water quality by capturing nutrients and sediment carried by the stormwater before they reach the Chesapeake Bay.

Helping communities obtain grants to move from planning to constructing stormwater control projects is straight out of the Watershed Assistance Collaborative's playbook. The Watershed Assistance Grant Program is a major source of support for this work, annually awarding grants of up to $75,000 for either planning projects or small-scale demonstration projects — both key steps towards building stormwater efforts. The program is run by the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Maryland Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment. Some of the program's funding comes to the Bay Trust from sales of Maryland's "Treasure the Chesapeake" license plates.

More than 90 percent of the WAGP grantees have gone on to get larger grants from the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund. Matt Fleming, who oversees this trust fund as director of Maryland DNR's Chesapeake and Coastal Service, says that the high success rate reflects how the planning grants help communities produce good, reliable designs for stormwater projects that are "shovel ready."

Unfortunately there isn't enough state and federal grant money to pay for all of the stormwater management projects on priority lists. That's why the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) works to help communities write financial plans and identify stable revenues for stormwater management projects.

Attendees at a HACCP training session. Photograph, Daniel Pendick

The first Sea Grant employee in Maryland was an Extension agent hired to work with the seafood industry. Since then Sea Grant has kept expanding its outreach efforts, adding Extension agents and specialists who now provide many of the state's Tidewater industries and communities with training, technical information, and environmental planning help.  more. . . .

Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialists play an important role in providing communities with on-the-ground support and technical assistance in ways that the Collaborative's other partners aren't easily able to do, says Jen Cotting, associate director of the EFC. Extension's five watershed restoration specialists — Kelsey Brooks, Eric Buehl, Jennifer Dindinger, Amanda Rockler, and Jackie Takacs — each serves a different region of the state. Maryland Sea Grant started creating this corps of specialists with funding from DNR in 2009, shortly after the Watershed Assistance Collaborative was formed. The specialists also work on other stormwater management and water quality projects in their regions.

Buehl, who serves the upper and mid Eastern Shore, recently provided this kind of on-the-ground support to another Eastern Shore town, St. Michaels. When the Environmental Finance Center helped the community plan a green infrastructure project, Buehl helped local residents and businesses identify areas prone to flooding. He also wrote a maintenance manual and provided a training session for the town's Department of Public Works about how to maintain existing rain gardens — vegetated areas designed to collect stormwater and remove nutrients that would otherwise end up in Bay waters.

"What's unique about the collaborative," adds Fleming of DNR, "is that it's about maximizing existing resources and partnering with other entities and playing off their strengths. If we can leverage our resources and use all of these existing programs, it is a more efficient and effective way of providing coordinating capacity to local governments. I have definitely seen this working really well."

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