President Obama signed a new law in January that will require federal agencies to pay stormwater fees set by local governments. The law will provide an additional $2.6 million per year for reducing polluted stormwater runoff in the District of Columbia.
The federal government had refused to pay the District's fee even as federally driven mandates to clean up the Chesapeake Bay have spurred hotly contested rate hikes for sewage and stormwater management elsewhere in the region.
The bipartisan bill that passed in December ends a debate that U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-MD, called "a fundamental issue of equity."
The District began collecting the stormwater fee in 2001 but federal agencies stopped payments in 2009. The Government Accountability Office argued that stormwater fees are actually a tax, and the federal government cannot be taxed.
Fifteen states have also struggled to collect stormwater fees from federal agencies. According to Cardin's office, the backlog of unpaid bills ranges from $2,500 to approximately $2.4 million.
"Polluters, including the federal government, should be financially responsible for the pollution that they cause," Cardin said. "From Washington, DC, to Washington State, the failure of the federal government to pay localities for reasonable costs associated with the control and abatement of pollution that originated on its properties has taken its toll."
Cardin co-sponsored the bill with Sens. James Inhofe, R-OK, Patty Murray, D-WA, Maria Cantwell, D-WA, and George Voinovich, R-OH. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, offered up counterpart legislation in the House of Representatives.
The legislation was supported by the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Governments, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the International City/County Management Association.
"We agree with Congress that it is unfair for the federal government to require cities and utilities to undertake these investments and then exempt themselves from payment," said National Association of Clean Water Agencies director Ken Kirk.
Polluted stormwater runoff is the fastest growing source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers. In urban areas, impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops and parking lots send rainwater washing off the land, laden with debris, oil, pesticides and fertilizers. Pollutants smother stream life, while the force of the water erodes stream banks and triggers local floods.
Spokesperson Donna Henry of the District's Department of the Environment said the new law ensures that stormwater management costs will be fairly shared among federal and local government, residents and private enterprise. "It also ensures the District will have enough funding to meet its pollution control obligations under the federal Clean Water Act in the coming years," Henry said.
In recent years, the District launched an aggressive effort to reduce and treat the flow of stormwater. Central to the plan is upgrading the enormous system of underground pipes and tunnels that prevent stormwater from mixing with sewage and sometimes bursting onto streets and rivers. The District is also working to increase tree canopy, install green roofs and encourage other low-impact development techniques to capture and absorb rainwater where it falls.
Many of the projects are required by the EPA in order for the District to meet permit requirements for its storm and sewer system.
Landowners in the District pay for these projects through the stormwater fee. The fee is based on the amount of impervious surface on the property. A property owner can reduce the fee by replacing impervious surfaces with trees and plants.
Federal agencies occupy approximately 1,500 properties in the District, accounting for 20 percent of the impervious surface addressed through the fee. The District Department of the Environment estimates that federal agencies will contribute approximately $2.6 million in stormwater fees each year.