City could rise as a national leader in watershed management

“(M)any cities are looking for more innovative, cost-effective approaches to managing their polluted stormwater.”

– Nancy Sutley,

chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality

 

Friend or foe. There’s nothing in-between when dealing with environmental regulators. Whether state or federal, the agencies win and cities lose. Failure to comply with the Clean Drinking Water Act is simply not an option.

Charlottesville, Va., has been ordered to pay $26,000 for failing to reduce storm water runoff from construction sites.

Towson, Md., is paying $47,000 for not having stormwater pollution prevent plans at three county facilities.

Dallas will pony up $2 million to construct two wetlands and pay a fine to keep pollution from entering the stormwater system.

 

CITIES DON’T HAVE a choice. Their runoff is regulated by laws dating to 1972, but only recently has enforcement ramped up. The Environmental Protection Agency is expanding regulations with an eye toward finalizing new rules next year that will focus on runoff from subdivisions, roads, industrial sites and shopping centers.

The squeeze hurts. In the words of Suzanne Schulz, a manager in Grand Rapids, Mich.: “We end up with everybody else’s stormwater, but we’re the only ones being held responsible.”

Caught in the squeeze is the city of Augusta. Augusta’s annual needs for stormwater collection and treatment are in the tens of millions of dollars. However, the city is only able to budget about $2 million a year from the general fund, which has to compete with all other city priorities. Special-purpose local option sales tax money helps, but is not a reliable source. Augusta’s investment is comparatively weak for a city of 330 square miles.

To its credit, the city is in the process of turning to a stormwater utility, as nearly 2,000 other cities and counties already have done to solve their drainage problems. Indeed, Augusta Engineering Department Director Abie Ladson, the city’s point man for the current effort, says the biggest challenge is planning for 20 to 30 years out. That raises the bar to spending hundreds of millions of dollars in a coordinated and comprehensive way.

 

THE CHALLENGES are very real if Augusta does not want to join the ranks of Charlottesville, Towson, Dallas and other cities that have had their improvements – and spending – dictated by environmental regulators.

The value of the resources a utility brings will broaden the city’s approach from limited stormwater management to total watershed management. The EPA’s Bob Perciasepe describes it this way: “Instead of relying wholly on expanding traditional, costly water infrastructure as communities grow, employing green infrastructure allows communities to keep their waters clean while also reducing flooding from storm water overflows.”

Green infrastructure uses natural and constructed features to treat stormwater runoff in a way that mimics nature. The EPA believes this is one of the best ways to remove contaminants, while reducing the intensity of the runoff. Seattle environmental lawyer Jeff Kray explains that an integrated approach “continues a trend toward requiring wider use of methods that allow storm water to percolate into the ground, rather than run through a pipe into streams, rivers and larger water bodies.”

 

AUGUSTA’S STORMWATER Utility Plan is doing some percolating of its own right now. The Augusta Commission has approved the first phase, which allows for an inventory of infrastructure assets and community meetings through the rest of this year. The commission probably will take a final vote in January, with the utility taking shape next summer.

What seems clear is that the focus of the Augusta plan is levying a fee on every property in the city – about $72 a year per
homeowner – based on how much runoff the property generates. Everyone would pay – private property owners, nonprofits, churches and government at local, state and federal levels. This so-called “rain tax” is a traditional lightning rod for critics.

But should funding for the utility be a “one size fits all” proposition? Indeed, a comprehensive revenue stream would allow the city to capture funding across a broad spectrum. The National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies issued a report in 2006 that provides guidance for funding projects like the one Augusta is proposing. A key finding is: “The most successful stormwater programs are supported by several sources of funding.”

 

Of the 10 revenue sources identified in the report, Augusta is considering only one, the user fee. The other most common funding methods are: general fund appropriations; plan review/development inspection fees; special assessments; bonding for capital improvements; fees in lieu of construction; capitalization recovery fees; impact fees; developer extension/latecomer fees; and federal and state grants, loans and cooperative programs.

Clearly, a broader discussion for funding the utility is appropriate – especially since the historical funding source will be in jeopardy. Ladson says after the utility is approved, the $2 million now budgeted annually for stormwater in the general fund will go to other uses.

Clearly, Augusta’s traditional approach to handling stormwater with curbs, gutters, ditches and pipes wasn’t the cure-all during the record rains in June. Those residents who had water in their homes know that well.

 

THE OPPORTUNITY is at hand for a long-range plan that has the potential to position Augusta as a national leader in watershed management, and not the latest casualty of an expensive EPA consent order.

The New England Environmental Finance Center has come up with five keys for successfully organizing a utility:

• careful upfront planning;

• a well-implemented public outreach plan;

• involvement by key public officials;

• presence of a staff champion;

• knowledgeable consultants.

In this respect, the city is hitting on all cylinders. However, Augusta should add one more item to its list: a comprehensive review of funding streams. There’s no question that additional options are identified and available, and should be part of the broader discussion.

The challenge facing Augusta is balancing competing goals of regulatory compliance; managing a successful program; and keeping it affordable. I’m confident good planning and innovation will get us there.

 

(The writer is a former Augusta mayor and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)

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