You may not realize it, but the water we drink, shower and bathe with, as well as recreate in, was once stormwater.

Storm drain in rain

One inch of rain on just one acre of hardened surface produces about 27,000 gallons of polluted runoff. 

When it rains, water that runs off hard surfaces like rooftops, parking lots, roads and even lawns is often shuttled to the nearest river or stream by underground pipes and open swales.  Along the way, things like motor oil, pet waste, lawn chemicals and fertilizers, cigarette butts and garbage hitch a ride.

Too much stormwater can overwhelm Pennsylvania’s undersized and undermaintained infrastructure. In many areas, this is often combined with human waste and can cause raw sewage overflows into streams and streets. Flooding plagues most of our older towns and boroughs, and floodwater is sometimes unsafe for human contact. Pennsylvania has more of these “combined sewer overflows” than any other state.

About 5,200 miles of our streams are classified as impaired from polluted stormwater runoff.

While we all want less of the dirty stuff flooding and polluting the water we rely on, agreement on how to reduce, clean and manage polluted runoff isn’t as easy to come by.

More than 1,700 governments nationwide, including more than two dozen in Pennsylvania, have chosen to establish local stormwater fees. One common feature of all of these is that they’re based on local solutions to a big problem.

As the flood of reporting about stormwater fees continues, several points deserve clarification.

Back in 1987, Congress recognized that stormwater was a big and growing problem in the nation. Starting in 1990, as part of the federal Clean Water Act, municipalities of a certain size or larger were required to start reducing stormwater runoff. Today, there are more than 1,000 such municipalities in Pennsylvania.

Municipalities are not mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or state Department of Environmental Protection to have stormwater fees. Instead, municipalities choose how to pay for stormwater projects.

The stormwater fee is not a tax on the amount of rain that falls from the sky and onto the land. Because it is not a tax, the fee often provides that tax-exempt properties pay their fair share. Some municipalities apply calculated stormwater fees to agriculture, churches, schools and government properties. Others ask for a flat fee.

For other landowners, such as businesses, the fee is based on the property’s amount of hard surface and how much polluted runoff the property sends into the stormwater system. It’s an impact fee.

Most programs offer credits or discounts for property owners who add trees, rain gardens and other practices that reduce stormwater pollution.

Fees can vary. For example, households in the city of Lancaster, PA, pay about $0.10 a day. Derry Township in Dauphin County has a fee of $0.21 a day. The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority fee is around $0.16 a day. People who buy fast-food coffee three times a week would pay more each month.

The revenues from fees are usually dedicated to the local stormwater authority, to be used only for reducing the amount of polluted runoff and its impacts.

One inch of rain on just one acre of hardened surface produces about 27,000 gallons of polluted runoff. That’s almost enough to fill a large, in-ground swimming pool. For most local systems — some of which haven’t been maintained or updated for 25, 50, even 100 years — the water hits our streams hard and fast. It blows them out of their banks causing flooding to roads, downtowns, backyards and basements.

A recent opinion piece that appeared in a number of Pennsylvania newspapers called for the state DEP to provide “substantiated, comprehensive data” of local water quality and plans for monitoring improvements.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of stream water quality monitoring data in Pennsylvania already. It’s been collected by federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and even local watershed groups sometimes for decades. Much of it, after review for accuracy, is used to help scientists understand what’s going on in our streams and why.

Models, however, do something monitoring simply can’t. They’re used to predict the outcomes of different scenarios, sometimes including cost estimates that can ultimately save citizens money.

More monitoring can be helpful. But without increased investments in the programs and people to make it happen, the question becomes how will the monitoring be done and by whom? DEP staffing is at levels comparable to those in the mid-90s, and the water programs have been chronically underfunded for more than a decade. The governor’s 2020–21 budget proposed that DEP funding rise above 1994–95 levels for the first time in a decade.

Another point worth clarifying: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has not said it will sue Pennsylvania for being significantly behind in meeting its clean water commitments. The state of Maryland has said that. Both Maryland and CBF have said that the EPA is subject to suit for not holding the commonwealth accountable for repeatedly missing its targets.

Locally created and controlled stormwater programs are critical to ensuring that we have clean and abundant water.

Our health, well-being and quality of life depend on it.

Harry Campbell is the Pennsylvania science policy and advocacy director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.


(2) comments


Thank you Harry for this piece.

Stormwater is creating major problems coast to coast. We've urbanized quicker in the last 100 years that at any point in human history. Our vast amount of asphalt and concrete "jungles" has created an urban sprawl scenario that has led to budgetary issues also not seen in human existence. There are pipes below our streets that are currently in use that were also in use when the city was founded. Many of these pipes are out-dated and in need of repair. Lastly, and arguably the worst point, is that extreme weather due to climate change is pushing these very systems to a breaking point. The rivers, lakes, and streams that we rely on are paying for it. We've got plenty of civil work that needs to be done as we progress into the 21st century.

I am co-founder of a material science company in Spokane, WA. We have been closely evaluating the stormwater issues throughout our country for the last 9 years. We've invented a specific type of permeable pavement but with a twist. We will not clog. A bold statement we know. But with some heavy science, we've developed a technology that uses sub-micron pore size and capillary action to drive stormwater back into aquifers. Imagine tree roots for roadways through an engineered design. We are launching our company this month, and I will be sure to share a link with more information. Although we are excited about our innovations in the stormwater space, more needs to happen. Water management needs more inventions.

Thank you for your time Harry,

Kevin Kunz


While I support the author's support of everyone paying their fair share to restore bay's health, whatever that may be, dollars spent isn't the most useful metric in my opinion. In Maryland, we have spent plenty plus some on TMDL restoration work, with mixed results at best. I have been a part of that effort, and have more than a few misgivings about how and where we are spending our dollars. Precious few organizations are focusing in on how nature, in the form of nocturnal, buck toothed rodent with a flattened tail , can do a great deal toward water quality improvements in the bay watershed, for free. BeaverCON, an international conference attended by scientists and land use managers from across the globe, held recently in Hunt Valley, MD, provided three days of restoration success stories, and studies quantifying and qualifying this iconic species' ability to change and transform the landscape, for the better. They (beaver) were here in the bay watershed in the millions by some estimates, prior to European settlement. They are "a part of our history, but not our culture", as one presenter at BeaverCON remarked. Until we learn to honor and learn from nature and its seemingly limitless interconnectedness, we won't win the the battle to restore the bay.

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