In the latest public estimate of the county's stormwater woes, a county engineer has estimated that removing existing pollution and preventing more in Anne Arundel's waterways will cost as much as $5 billion.
The estimate includes all costs to fix polluted streams, install pollution control technology in new homes and retrofit older neighborhoods with proper stormwater systems, said Chris Phipps, deputy director of the county's Bureau of Engineering.
He said repairing streams and rivers alone will cost $1.3 billion, adding the rough estimate means the tally could be billions higher.
"It's hard for us to model," Mr. Phipps said. "I don't know if we've ever tried to estimate before; the problem is so huge."
Stormwater runoff plays a role in nearly every major environmental problem in the Chesapeake Bay. Runoff from rains carry sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen in the waterways, smothering oysters, ushering in toxic algae blooms and choking fish.
If county estimates hold, fixing the problem in Anne Arundel would cost every man, woman and child in the county about $10,000 each.
The price tag refocused the council's already critical discussion on an excise tax expected to raise $5 million a year. At that rate, it would take 1,000 years to pay down the tab.
"Now it's almost laughable," Vice Chairman Ed Middlebrooks, R-Severn, said of the proposal, which would charge people who create new impervious surfaces such as buildings or parking lots. "It's almost like you feel good, but what are you accomplishing?"
Several council members and environmentalists said the proposed tax on new development did too little to solve an "eye-popping" problem and hung too much responsibility on the new construction that did not cause existing problems.
"It's a window dressing," Councilman Jamie Benoit, D-Crownsville, said of the proposal called the Stormwater Management and Restoration of Tributaries (SMART) fund. "It exalts form over-substance."
County Executive John R. Leopold proposed the SMART fund and fended off criticism by saying it is much better than nothing and a realistic approach to the problem.