BY SUSAN HINES — In an event that was part tour, part celebration, Hyattsville resident Donna Reynolds accepted a $2,000 rebate check, and showed off the new driveway that earned the reward.
Billed as a Stormwater Innovations Tour, the December 11 ceremony highlighted the new Prince George’s County Rain Check Rebate Program, which offsets the cost of projects that either capture rain or allow it to drain naturally through the soil.
The Maryland Department of the Environment joined the Prince Georges County Department of Environmental Resources to draw attention to the program. A crowd of environmentalists and officials, including Maryland Secretary of the Environment Robert Summers, joined curious homeowners outside Reynolds’ home in the 5500 block of 43rd Avenue.
Surrounded by posters saying “Don’t Blame the Rain” and “Less Pollution is the Solution,” County Environmental Resources Director Adam Ortiz called Reynolds and “green” landscaper Abel Rivas “heroes.”
Ortiz went on to say, “Environmental protection is about recognizing our connection to each other, to the Earth, and to future generations . . .  who will feel the impact of how we spend our money and run our lives. Government regulations will only go so far. We need partners and friends.”
Why do storm and rain water capture deserve attention? Our paved urban environment prevents rain and melted snow from being absorbed by the ground and cleansed by draining slowly through the soil before entering and recharging the groundwater system. Instead, stormwater runs off streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and even roofs, enters the storm drainage system and is directly discharged into rivers and streams.
Direct discharge of unfiltered storm water harms neighborhoods. When drainage systems are overwhelmed, flash flooding occurs, sewers backup, water seeps through basement walls. Runoff causes pollution because contaminants such as gasoline, motor oil, heavy metals, animal feces, fertilizers, and pesticides are picked up by the flow and discharged — untreated — into streams, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
A 2012 Maryland law, written to bring the state into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act of 2010, required nine counties and Baltimore City to collect fees from property owners to fund programs that mitigate stormwater runoff pollution. Del. Tom Hucker, a sponsor of the 2012 law who represents Silver Spring and Takoma Park, said at the time that the state’s 10 most urbanized jurisdictions were chosen; they have the most blacktop and buildings that contribute to the problematic runoff.
Last July, the Prince George’s County Council passed legislation in response to the new mandate. As required by state law, a Clean Water Program was established, which provides for the setting, collection, and deposit of a Clean Water Act Fee into a local fund. Deemed the “Rain Tax” by opponents, the fee appeared on county residents’ last property tax bill; this fee supports capital improvements for stormwater management, including stream and wetland restoration projects, operation and maintenance of stormwater management systems and facilities, and grants of up to 100 percent of project cost for watershed restoration and rehabilitation projects taken on by nonprofit groups.
Part of the fund is also dedicated to public outreach and education about what residents can do to decrease both stormwater runoff from their own properties and the new fee. That’s what Reynolds, a 27-year resident of Hyattsville, seized upon when she received information on the Rain Check Rebate along with her tax bill.
Already confronting the expense of replacing her cracked driveway, Reynolds decided to investigate alternatives to concrete or asphalt in hopes of taking advantage of the program. She  selected a new permeable driveway of interlocking precast pavers installed to allow water to pass between the blocks and enter the ground. She also replaced the front walk with the same system.
The work qualified for one of the county’s first rebates. In addition, reducing her property’s impervious surfacing means she will save $60 on next year’s Clean Water Act Fee.
Reynolds calls the rebate program “perfect, especially if it is something you are already going to do.” She is pleased with the completed project and credits Rivas, owner of the Hyattsville-based Best Landscape & Construction, with his dedication to quality and attention to detail.
Rivas also happens to be certified by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) on the proper installation of permeable concrete interlocking pavers. Installation by a licensed and qualified contractor is key to receiving a Rain Check rebate for permeable surface installation. Given the several layers of base and sub-base necessary to prep for the pavers themselves, and the need for careful filling of the joints between pavers, this project is not a good candidate for DIY.
While more complicated projects require paying professionals, many can be tackled by homeowners themselves: planting trees, acquiring rain barrels or cisterns, even installing a rain garden,
Hyattsvillager Marybeth Shea is an English professor at University of Maryland and technical consultant to international environmental organizations. She notes that the Rain Check program is part of a new green economics strategy to pay citizens for providing or enhancing the environmental services nature provides for “free.”
Such ecosystem services include water pollution filtering, erosion reduction, as well as preserving the carbon stored in the tree canopy. “My first rain gardens date from 2004, including one installed by a former student at Hamilton Street near Magruder Park,” Shea says. “Hyattsville continues to develop a green infrastructure that is a model for other Maryland communities.”