Bay Journal

Conservationists making the case for stormwater fees

Cities, counties share best practices as they work to finance utilities and upgrades.

  • By Whitney Pipkin on September 08, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.
The rainwater that washes everything from oil slicks to animal droppings and fertilizer into waterways is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Bay.  (Dave Harp) Stormwater overwhelms the sanitary sewer system during a downpour in Cambridge, MD.  (Dave Harp)

It’s not easy persuading a voting public that it now needs to pay for a service that’s long been provided underground and under-the-radar. In fact, what would otherwise be skimmed over on a city council agenda —utility fees — has gotten downright dramatic in some cities and counties when it comes to stormwater.

Though stormwater utilities have been around since the early ’90s, more jurisdictions around the country are considering them as a way to pay for upgrades to aging infrastructure and to implement new technologies.

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, requirements for states to reduce stormwater pollution are also inspiring cities and counties to consider how to fund improvements. The rainwater that washes everything from oil slicks to animal droppings and fertilizer into waterways is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Bay.

Local governments that have already struggled through the process of implementing new fees or programs to address stormwater improvements are now sharing what they’ve learned with others — mostly that it won’t be easy.

“You have to do some convincing,” said Jacob Powell with the Virginia Conservation Network. “To collect money now so things can be maintained — that’s not something that any politician becomes popular for doing.”

New state legislation required Maryland’s 10 largest jurisdictions to implement stormwater fees by July. While a few jurisdictions have tried to buck the requirement, many communities have simply heard from their political leaders that “we have to do this.” Opposition to the added fee surprised many local governments and stormwater supporters in Maryland. Terms like “rain tax” dominated public conversations on the issue and garnered national headlines.

In Virginia, Powell said, the driver for improving infrastructure now is multifaceted. While there’s no statewide mandate as in Maryland, many municipalities are realizing that stormwater is something they have to deal with, either to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act or to simply maintain city infrastructure similar to the way they’ve taken on wastewater treatment plants.

In the past, stormwater upgrades may have been paid for out of the general fund. But the sticker price of improving dilapidated systems and implementing technologies with high front-end costs is making improvements less feasible without a dedicated stream of revenue, Powell said.

In Richmond, for example, the need for infrastructure updates became obvious when the city found terra cotta pipes used in its system that had been installed during the Civil War era.

Richmond and other communities with 100,000 or more residents have been required by the Clean Water Act to have Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems since 1990. Nine years later, the requirement was extended to communities with 50,000 or more people, or with a density of 1,000 people per square mile.

More than 500 communities in the Bay watershed are regulated under these permits, according to the Chesapeake Stormwater Network.

As populations grow, new cities and counties are added to the list every year, and a growing number are implementing stormwater utility fees to pay for their programs.

A case study in communications

The city of Charlottesville first considered a stormwater utility fee in 2008 — to no avail. The City Council said it could not justify an additional burden on homeowners in the midst of an economic downturn. But council members did see the need to invest in stormwater infrastructure, which was nearing 90 years old in some parts of the city, and said they’d consider the issue again in a few years.

Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator, said the next window came in the summer of 2012, as residents were becoming more aware of the state’s water pollution reduction goals and their role in reaching them.

“I think that certainly influenced the process,” she said.

Riddervold said her department came back to the table prepared to inform the public about the need for improvements.

It helped that hers and other departments had begun the physical work of improvements in the meantime, using capital funds and grants to chip away at some of city’s problems. They were able to demonstrate that the investment had alleviated flooding and improved drainage in some areas.

“I think that the Bay TMDL is certainly a driver in all this, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the primary beneficiary of this,” Riddervold said. “Really it’s going to be local water quality, local flooding, local health and safety concerns that are positively impacted.”

And Riddervold learned that those benefits have to be part of the discussion right out of the gate.

Articulating the benefits upfront comes highly recommended in a “stormwater toolkit” that was circulated this summer by the Choose Clean Water Coalition as the organization worked to help cities through the process of implementing stormwater projects.

Deb Kleiner, communications manager for Choose Clean Water, said the coalition saw several jurisdictions in Maryland struggle to explain the importance of stormwater improvements to the public, even as they were forced to implement them.

“Everybody was struggling, across the board, with how to communicate about it,” Kleiner said.

The toolkit

With Charlottesville as one of its test cases, the coalition put together the kinds of materials that might help a municipality get the message across.

The toolkit includes sample letters to the editor and to elected officials, talking points and public service announcements. It provides a glossary of words to use instead of “TMDL” and “WIP” and offers up the mantra that helped get Charlottesville’s utility passed: “What happens below matters above.”

Though stormwater isn’t “a hugely enthralling subject,” Riddervold said the city had to frame it as an impinging — and personal — problem, one that could result in emergency situations like the flooding of homes or streets.

“It doesn’t have this tangible, immediate urgency that a lot of other issues have, like schools or public safety. It is an extremely difficult topic to make relevant, to answer the ‘What do I get out of it?’ question,” she said.

VCN’s Powell agreed that, from a practical standpoint, cities need to show residents what they’ll be paying for.

“People need to understand what they’re getting out of it, because it’s a fee for service. They need to understand what that service is,” he said.

Charlottesville used graphics and posters to explain the basics, illustrating how pollutants that residents wouldn’t think to put in the watershed can be carried there by stormwater. Ads that ran in local newspapers and movie theaters depict a man washing his car in the water, fertilizing the water and allowing his dog to do its business in the water.

But recognizing the importance of reducing stormwater pollution doesn’t mean residents will want to pay for it.

Charlottesville’s proposed fee faced unexpected opposition from the nonprofit community, specifically from churches that were large landowners and are typically exempt from taxes.

What helped pave the way with these groups, in the end, was changing the message, describing the utility as a way to help “care for creation” and not just a new fee to fix the environment. That’s an approach suggested in the toolkit as well, along with getting some of these key stakeholders to the table long before the discussion becomes public.

Charlottesville formed a stakeholder advisory committee early in the process. This helped foster buy-in from community members as they heard about the stormwater utility first from friends and acquaintances instead of city officials.

But perhaps the biggest key to getting the utility passed in Charlottesville was being able to estimate what it would cost homeowners, businesses and nonprofits.

Choose Clean Water’s toolkit can’t seem to get this point across enough.

“We strongly suggest you work to determine some rough estimates before you start communicating with your community,” the pamphlet states.

Charlottesville was able to use GIS (Geographic Information Systems) data to project fees for property owners based on size. Residents could go to the city’s website to calculate their estimated fees.

Riddervold said most homeowners will pay less than $100 a year when the utility launches in 2014. The fee will be applied to the homeowner and not the renter, which was an important component in a rent-heavy college town.

“I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter methodology that you can just go through the steps in every community,” Riddervold said. “I think going through it thoughtfully in a way that works for your community is invaluable.”

Laying the groundwork

Charlotte Katzenmoyer, director of public works for the city of Lancaster, PA, agrees.

The key to making headway in her city has been starting early — and starting with the positives. The city will have been laying the groundwork for three years by the time a stormwater utility fee comes before its council this fall.

Public works staff started with a grant to develop a green infrastructure plan and then began working on demonstration projects. They built a permeable-surface basketball court at a park that fosters stormwater retention and absorbs the sound of bouncing basketballs for nearby neighbors.

“If you do a lot of public education and outreach before you roll out this whole stormwater impact fee, I think it’s a lot more palatable to people, because they understand, ‘OK, this is what we’ll be spending this money on,’ ” said Katzenmoyer, whose team also focused on improving flooding with initial projects.

By the time the stormwater utility fee came up for public discussion, there were still “naysayers,” but also surprising supporters.

Katzenmoyer said some developers are voluntarily implementing green infrastructure even as the city changes ordinances to require it. Fulton Bank is building a water reuse system that will collect and reuse stormwater to flush toilets and cool buildings at its Lancaster headquarters.

“They didn’t have to do that. That’s a $400,000 investment they made because they knew this was the right thing to do,” Katzenmoyer said.

She said publications like Choose Clean Water’s toolkit have also been helpful as the city works to present a utility fee to the council soon. Katzenmoyer said the model the organization is putting forth mirrors what she’s seen in Lancaster.

“I can attest that it really does work,” she said.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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