Science to Live By: Reining in the Rain Tax

Local pond next to a gravel road.

What a joyous, raucous sound! What a happy harbinger of spring! The chorus of forest-dwelling Wood frogs fills the air—after a soaking rain—with their ancient mating song. And I am delighted.  Hope of new life abounds in their exuberant melodies.

Having overwintered in the high terrain of Blackwells Hollow in northwestern Albemarle County, these diminutive denizens of the forest make an annual pilgrimage to the vernal pond below our kitchen window. These amphibians come to breed each year in the ephemeral, crystal-clear waters of the natural pool next to our driveway.

One day not a peep, the next day, dozens of full-throated Wood frogs. How did they know to convene on this particular day in early February?

Two weeks later, having heard the water’s fine, Spring Peepers join in. Masses of jelly-like eggs—each with its tiny black spot of wriggling life in the center—now float in the water, tethered to reeds.

I, too, spent much of my childhood in the woods and on the water. With the guidance of my best friend’s father (a naval architect no less!), I built a kayak with a wooden frame covered by waterproof canvass.  I painted it white with a bold, blue stripe down the side. What a thrill it was when, launched for the first time, I paddled out into the open water. My love of all things aqueous spilled over into my swashbuckling graduate school days when I would venture forth onto the Chesapeake Bay aboard the research vessel, the Ridgely Warfield.

All this is by way of saying that I, like so many others who have made Albemarle County home, wish to live in a clean and healthy environment. Government has an important role to play in helping make this happen. But the County’s proposed impervious surface Rain Tax is neither a logical nor equitable way to fund its storm water management programs. I will explain.

Roofs, being impervious to water, maintain physical integrity when rained and snowed upon.  They are, in and of themselves, not significant sources of pollution.

And, unlike chimneys, for example, they are not point sources of environmental pollution. Flue gases from a wood-burning stove are loaded with carbon dioxide and airborne particulates. In contrast, waters washing off metal roofs are not loaded with nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphorus that can eutrophy water (promote algae blooms and lower dissolved oxygen levels).  Tile roofs do not generate water-choking sediment when rained upon. Asphalt shingles are not a source of microbiological pathogens above ambient levels. Glass skylights do not emit pesticides or other toxic chemicals.

This is why, after a thunderstorm, I do not mutter to myself, ‘Gee whiz, the Ruritan’s roof in White Hall has polluted the Moormans River once more.’  That’s why, when I see a muddy Doyles River after a rain, I do not think, ‘Oh gosh, the Browns Cove Methodist Church roof has done it again.’  No. Instead, I suspect somewhere upstream, land has been recently disturbed. Perhaps a field has been plowed, a hillside timbered, or excavation has begun on a new home.

Wood frogs on a vernal pond.

Here’s a ludicrous thought. On my mountainous property, impervious surfaces from natural rock outcroppings are greater than the combined surface area of my home, barn, and sheds. Using the County’s logic, these natural impervious surface cause more water pollution than the physical structures on my land. Shouldn’t rock outcroppings be taxed per square foot as well?

In rural settings, most privately owned roofs impose no financial burden on the capital expenditures of the County.  With adequate gutters, French drains, and landscaping in place, rainwater runoff from homes, barns, and sheds simply flows into yards, fields, and woodlands without adverse impact on surrounding surface water quality. No publicly funded culverts are needed, no storm water sewers must be constructed using government funds.

Once begun, governmental programs have a propensity to take on a life of their own. In that sense, I agree that “Rain Tax” fees may become “a dependable and steady revenue stream that increases with community growth” as claimed in a Letter to the Editor published in the February 2018 issue of the Crozet Gazette.

Nevertheless, for many rural residents, businesses, non-profits, and places of worship, the County’s approach for assessing the Rain Tax bears little relationship to either the water problems to be addressed or the water services rendered.

Government policies that are inherently unfair to a large portion of the populace create division, strife, and unnecessary discord. We already have too much of that. I urge the members of the Board of Supervisors to find another way, if needed, to augment funding of its storm water management programs.

Rain Tax, go away,

Never see the light of day,

Surely there’s a better way,

Rain Tax, go away. 

(Sung to the tune Rain, Rain, Go Away)


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