The cost of clean streams
Norfolk, Va., public works officials breathed a sigh of relief in July 2006 when the city council approved an increase in the fee users pay to fund stormwater management, assuring an adequate budget for that program. But, if additional requirements that have been proposed for the city’s soon-to-be renewed permit are approved, the program will be facing major funding shortfalls, officials say.
Across the country, local officials facing rising costs to satisfy federal requirements for controlling stormwater runoff are searching for ways to fund the costly measures. For some, that means increasing stormwater utility user fees or raising taxes. Others are turning to inexpensive technology to help with their stormwater management plans and redoubling public education campaigns to enlist residents and developers in the fight to clean lakes and streams.
Regulations cause strain
Since the early 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been requiring cities and counties to comply with rules to control water pollution from stormwater runoff. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, an amendment to the Clean Water Act, requires communities and certain industrial sites to obtain permits for discharges of pollutants from stormwater runoff. The permits, which in most cases are issued by the states but approved by the EPA, require stormwater management planning and implementation of best management practices (BMPs). EPA has left several aspects of the permits up to the states, stating that the management programs must reduce stormwater discharges to the maximum extent practicable. The agency also has issued a list of suggested BMPs, which the states use when deciding which ones are appropriate in their communities.
Phase I of the program required communities with populations of 100,000 or more and certain industrial sites to obtain the permits, and phase II targeted operators of small municipal separate stormwater systems, or those serving less than 100,000. The permits must be renewed every five years, at which time the states reevaluate the permits and may make changes based on new needs. They are sent to the EPA for reapproval.
Now, more than 10 years after the federal government became involved in managing stormwater, many communities are finding it hard to meet all the requirements, while keeping up with the EPA’s and the states’ ideas of BMPs. For example, Norfolk, a phase I community, is in the reapproval process, and the state wants the city’s permit to include testing for certain materials, which would require technology the city does not yet have, according to Michael Schafer, Norfolk stormwater engineer. To satisfy the new requirement, the city would need additional employees and additional funding.
Norfolk has had a user fee-financed stormwater utility to manage runoff since 1991. It generated about $10.5 million in 2007, but the only way it will keep up with increasing costs is through periodic rate increases. The last rate hike was in 2006, but Schafer worries that securing another will be difficult. “Given the current climate in the community, it would be difficult to get another fee increase approved now. People are already concerned about the taxes they pay,” he says.
That need to increase fees to cover costs is a concern shared by many other utilities across the country. In a recent survey of 71 utilities conducted by Overland Park, Kan.-based Black & Veatch’s management consulting division, 40 percent said that their revenues are only adequate to meet their most urgent needs. Of the respondents, only 8 percent said their funds are adequate to meet all their needs. Many of the utilities reported that major challenges they have faced recently are related to finances, rates and billing, as well as regulatory and quality control compliance. And 14 of the utilities said that NPDES compliance has significantly affected them in the past two years.
Norwalk, Conn., has kept its costs low by trying stormwater filters. In 2004, the environmental group Soundkeeper, which is dedicated to keeping the Long Island Sound environmentally clean, proposed that Norwalk experiment with a sponge-type product developed by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based AbTech Industries that fits into existing stormwater infrastructure and keeps sediment, bacteria, chemicals, gasoline and oil from entering water bodies that receive runoff. “One reason towns like [the product] is because they don’t have to dig up streets or tie up traffic,” says Terry Backer, executive director of Soundkeeper. “We also found [in Norwalk] that when these catch basins need to be cleaned, three men could clean 275 of them in two days. Without the sponge, it might take a month to clean 275. That’s a tremendous cost savings.”
Public involvement is crucial
To help meet their financial challenges, local officials have been trying to educate residents about the costs of stormwater management and steps they can take to prevent water pollution. According to the Black & Veatch survey, most utilities (74 percent of respondents) report that an organized public information/education effort is essential to the continuing success of user fee-funded utilities. The most popular education methods include inserts in users’ bills, speakers’ bureaus, the internet and public schools, according to the survey.
The Redmond, Wash., Public Works Department focuses an education campaign on the city council every two years when stormwater utility rate analyses are conducted. “We talk to them about what needs to be done and why,” says Bill Campbell, public works director. In addition, Campbell conducts public outreach through the city’s quarterly magazine. “We’re also looking at putting a flyer in with our bills.”
Officials in Lenexa, Kan., located near Kansas City, began involving residents in stormwater management planning in the late 1990s, according to Mike Beezhold, watershed manager for the city. The discussions were an outgrowth of ongoing conversations city leaders were having with residents and businesses about the city’s future development. Many of those discussions focused on restoring the community’s natural resources, Beezhold says.
In 1999, Lenexa officials surveyed residents to ask whether they would be willing to fund stormwater management projects. “People were willing to pay,” Beezhold says. “In fact, 80 percent of them equated water quality with quality of life.”
From those efforts came Lenexa’s Rain to Recreation program, under which officials built Lake Lenexa, a retention facility, within 240 acres of parkland. The program paired managing flooding from stormwater runoff with a recreation project and an effort to improve water quality. To fund the program, the city passed a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase that was renewed in 2004. “The community commitment we received helped us in achieving compliance. Garnering public support, and making public education fun — those are key,” he says.
Lenexa’s stormwater management also is financed through a utility that was created in 2000. At that time, a user fee of $2.50 per month per equivalent dwelling unit was enacted and has since increased to $5.50 per month. A third source of funding for stormwater comes from a systems development charge, a capital recovery fee for all new development. It is a one-time fee at construction time, Beezhold says. “Through the city’s commitment, we are in compliance with [EPA’s phase II regulations,]” Beezhold says. “We’re not just meeting minimum requirements, but for us, it’s a quality of life issue.”
Keeping up with changes
When funding is adequate, keeping up with requirements is the next big challenge for stormwater management. Officials say the problem is knowing what constitutes a BMP because the EPA does not specify required BMPs. Rather, states and local governments develop BMP sets based on rainfall and soil type. “What is a BMP one day might not be the next day, so you constantly have to stay on top of that,” says Jim Hibbard, engineering and field operations manager for Fort Collins, Colo.
One of the newest BMPs recommended by the EPA is Low-Impact Development (LID), which involves practices that seek to mimic a site’s hydrology before its development, thereby reducing negative effects on nearby rivers, lakes, streams or wetlands. LID practices use design technologies to promote natural systems for stormwater infiltration, evapotranspiration and reuse. Traditional plans for stormwater management, for example, involve curbs, gutters, and piping for runoff, whereas LID practices include engineered swales and vegetated contours. The practices, according to the EPA, can remove nutrients, pathogens and metals from stormwater.
One example would be to put an extended retention pond at the edge of a development to hold runoff to let sediment settle before it goes into a stream or other water body. “On a natural piece of land, things like rate and amount of flow and sediment are not as relevant as if the land is developed,” Hibbard says. “You put homes, roofs, etc. on the land, there will be more runoff, and it will be faster.”
Many LID practices are being used in communities because of the cost-savings they can bring, including fewer materials needed for paving roads or installing curbs and gutters, according to the EPA. Some savings also may be seen when LID practices allow a site to comply with some of the federal regulations. According to a December EPA report on LID practices, Germantown, Wis., saved 40 percent when LID practices were used to develop the Prairie Glen subdivision. The estimated costs for stormwater management if completed with traditional construction were a little more than $1 million, compared to the almost $600,000 the city spent. And in Washington, Bellingham officials retrofitted two parking lots with rain gardens in lieu of installing underground vaults to manage stormwater. The LID practices resulted in an 80 percent savings in one location and a 76 percent savings at the other site, the report shows.
Whether it is funding or keeping up with requirements that causes the most concern, officials say a positive outlook can ease the stress. “What helped us here in Lenexa was looking at things a little differently than you’ve seen them in the past,” Beezhold says. “It helped to look at the activities we pursued and the requirements as an amenity, not a liability.”
Meredith Preston is American City & County’s Washington correspondent.