City could rise as a national leader in watershed management

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“(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.)

Comments (9) Add comment
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soapy_725
47234
Points
soapy_725 09/08/13 - 07:59 am
0
0
ARC's future is managing the Guvmit Plantation. Y'all
Unpublished

ARC's future is managing the Guvmit Plantation. Y'all

soapy_725
47234
Points
soapy_725 09/08/13 - 08:01 am
0
0
I feel a campaign coming on. I feel it. Open up those wallets
Unpublished

I feel a campaign coming on. I feel it. Open up those wallets

Riverman1
154011
Points
Riverman1 09/08/13 - 10:12 am
2
0
Columbia County Neglect

The best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) example of counties neglecting their duty to control run-off is in Columbia County. Beautiful Point Comfort Cove has an obvious peninsula extending out from drain pipes under the road for hundreds of yards that has come about because of run-off from construction in the area. One of the construction projects was a county school. The Columbia County News Times has run stories and photos of the ongoing problem.

The silting has become so great bushes and even trees are starting to grow on the peninsula that results from county neglect. The very existence of the cove is at stake.

If this refusal to correct the run-off that resulted from new construction without required detention ponds such as with Carriage Hills is not corrected, we'll all be losers as the cove shrinks to nothing.

Darby
51462
Points
Darby 09/08/13 - 11:19 am
4
1
Like I said last time....

Bob Young gets paid for this????????????

SGT49
4428
Points
SGT49 09/08/13 - 12:26 pm
3
0
And be assured if you don't,

And be assured if you don't, EPA will send out he storm troopers. Like they did to a small mining community in Alaska that was recently visited by the EPA tactical unit, armed, and in full body armor to check that the miner's run-off was sufficiently handled. ...Well, where did you think all of the arms and ammo they've been buying has been going?

Little Lamb
61896
Points
Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 02:13 pm
3
0
Rain Tax

Bob Young wrote:

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.

Look at the discrepancy. Mr. Young says the tax will be about $72 a year per homeowner. Then he says the tax will be “ based on how much runoff the property generates.” That does not add up. The ‘how much runoff the property generates’ depends on the square footage of impervious surface of the parcel. If my parcel is 20,000 square feet and it is 10% impervious my runoff is 2,000 rain tax units; but Bob Young's parcel is 200,000 square feet and 10% impervious surface, his runoff is 20,000 rain tax units. He will pay ten times the rain tax for his parcel that I do for mine.

Another example. Suppose my parcel is a residential dwelling and driveway on a grassed lot of 30,000 square feet and has 5% impervious surface. Carol's Nail Salon and Bob's Bait Shop rent space in Ted & Alice's small strip mall which consists of 30,000 square feet, but which has 90% impervious surface because of the larger building and the parking lot. So I have 1,500 rain tax units for my parcel, but Ted & Alice have 27,000 rain tax units. They pay a lot more tax.

Businesses (large & small) which have large parking lots, and/or large rooftop areas (including churches) will have large rain tax bills.

Little Lamb
61896
Points
Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 03:04 pm
2
0
Governments

Bob Young says governments (local, state, and federal) would pay the rain tax. I'm sure the upcoming Augusta Stormwater Board would love to get their hands on Fort Gordon money and VA Hospital money and MCG money and Gracewood money and RCBOE money.

But how about the prospect of making the city of Augusta general fund pay rain tax to the city of Augusta stormwater utility? Sounds kind of strange.

blues550
423
Points
blues550 09/08/13 - 03:04 pm
0
0
Frank Redo
Unpublished

Apparently Young wants to follow in the footsteps of Frank "Rain Tax" Spears. Try this on for size - no new taxes...period. Pretty sure the good folks are taxed enough in Richmond County. And it is highly doubtul the dysfunctional government of Augusta can be a good model for anyone.

deestafford
69299
Points
deestafford 09/08/13 - 04:24 pm
5
1
I don't trust anything the EPA says.

It is one of the most anti-capitalistic, anti-growth, pro-big government "we know better than you do" agencies there is. It is one of the worst things Nixon gave this country...greater and more destructive than Watergate.
It needs to be eliminated and the agency should be re-established with its HQ in a 10ft x 10ft conex container with highly microscopic oversight by congress.

It appears that anytime there is a problem the answer is a fine, fee, or tax. Most of the "problems" identified by Bob could be solved by common sense and without any input or oversight by the feds.

Little Lamb
61896
Points
Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 09:59 pm
0
1
Homeowner

Bob Young writes:

. . . 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.

Why does Bob Young focus on homeowners while also talking about everyone? There are huge parcels of land in this county that are not owned by homeowners. They are factories, shopping centers, professional office complexes, military bases, schools, county government complexes (including the airport), and many, many more. Why does he focus on this imaginary, elusive $72 dollar a year fee on homeowners?

We feepayers need to be informed of how the fee is proposed to be levied on every type of parcel, not just homeowners.

Little Lamb
61896
Points
Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 10:07 pm
0
1
Tell us

I'm a homeowner. Bob Young tells me that I am expected to be levied a stormwater fee of $72 per year.

Please tell us, Bob Young, how much stormwater fee is Augusta Mall expected to be levied? How much for Fort Gordon? How much for Macedonia Baptist Church? How much for Grooo? How much for International Paper or Augusta Newsprint? How much for DSM Chemicals or PCM Nitrogen? How much for Richmond County Board of Education? How much for the Marriott Hotel, TEE Center, Parking Deck, Morris Museum of Art, etc.? How much for Costco? How much for the soon-to-be-constructed Cabelas?

Will the Augusta Chronicle dare to investigate and report?

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