Stormwater with rainbow sheenIt’s a huge challenge to clean up the nasty water that gushes through gutters and into Washington’s rivers and bays. But cleaning it is essential to reaching the region’s goals for saving Puget Sound.

Legislation was just proposed in Olympia that takes an important step towards solving our stormwater woes. House Bill 3181 and Senate Bill 6851, called the “Clean Water Act of 2010,” would boost a tax that’s already added to petroleum, pesticides, and other chemicals that are fouling waterways from the Spokane River to Lake Chelan to the Duwamish River.

The tax hike is expected to raise about $225 million more a year. It would increase the current 0.7 percent tax for toxic chemicals to 2 percent. That might add a few pennies to a gallon of gas (see a great analysis of the tax in this post by Eric de Place), as well as a slight bump to pesticides and other dangerous chemicals that are covered by the state’s Model Toxics Control Act.

The money collected would be used by cities, counties, and the state Department of Transportation to pay for projects that reduce and clean stormwater, and for other environmental projects. It also makes low-impact development—the smartest, cheapest, and best way to deal with stormwater—a priority for a portion of the funds raised.

Raising this tax is a well-reasoned strategy for addressing the state’s sizable stormwater problems. Here’s why.

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  • Data show that stormwater is the number one way that the majority of pollutants are getting into Puget Sound (and probably most other waterways). When the rain falls, it washes into ditches that flow into streams that empty into larger bodies of water. Along the way, the runoff picks up oil and grease that drips onto roads and driveways, pesticides sprayed on plants and roofs, dog poop and farm-animal waste, and countless other hazardous agents that are part of our daily lives.

    Approximately 14 million pounds of pollution wash into Puget Sound alone each year—and 58 percent of that is petroleum pollution (note these are low-ball estimates of the total pollution volumes). Likewise, the tax collected from petroleum products would be the biggest source of funding should the bills pass.

    This legislation is an improvement over a failed stormwater bill from last year. That measure targeted petroleum products alone, and while that’s the biggest pollution source for Puget Sound by volume, this new approach will capture additional pollutants that are highly toxic to fish and other wildlife, such as pesticides, mercury, and other heavy metals.

    One shortcoming of the measure is that for the first five years, a portion of the tax will be used to plug holes in the state’s general fund, which pays for education, Medicaid, corrections, and other public programs. In the first year, 69 percent of the tax increase goes to the general fund. The slice going to general fund shrinks over time and by mid 2015, the entire increase in the tax will be used for stormwater and water-quality programs.

    Storm drain photo courtesy of Flickr user Runs With Scissors under a Creative Commons license.