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Who pays for stormwater?

What can be done to control stormwater problems, many of which cross the boundaries of several communities? Who has the authority to require action? Where will the funding come from to meet new regulations? One possibility is for the sewer district to become a stormwater utility. 

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) took its first step into that role. In 2012, the agency joined more than 400 stormwater utilities in the country, including ones in Cincinnati and Columbus, in charging a fee based on the amount of impervious surface on one’s property. In Cincinnati, the typical homeowner pays $2.11 a month for stormwater services.

However, a district court ruled that NEORSD doesn't have the authority to collect the fee. Six months after launch, the District suspended its stormwater management program and fee for service in September, 2013 pending an appeal. 

Go with the flow<br />A rain garden slows stormwater from flooding in Cleveland Capturing runoff<br />A rain garden captures rainwater flowing off a parking lot at Baldwin Wallace University, allowing the water to seep into the ground rather than running into storm sewers.Act natural<br />The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District will use green infrastructure (engineered and natural methods) to absorb stormwater Greener stay<br />Courtyard at Marriott in Cleveland got a grant from the regional sewer district to install an underground cistern and permeable pavers.Water distribution<br />More than two-thirds of the Earth's freshwater is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, and nearly all the rest is groundwater.

NEORSD officials knew that it will be difficult to convince Greater Clevelanders to pay a bill for stormwater. Drainage is not a high priority issue—at least until basements flood. And the pollution impacts from stormwater are not as visible as a burning river. It will take a clear and persuasive explanation of the benefits to convince people that it’s time to take responsibility for something they’ve mostly taken for granted – the ability to let rain run off their land.

The goal is to create a “regional stormwater agency” and to take a coordinated approach to handling a growing number of floods in the area while improving water quality. Go here to see the District's program description, rate structure and funding.

Paying for parking lots?

But doesn’t it make sense to charge the Wal-Mart for all the water quality damage caused by its parking lot? And doesn’t it make sense for some regional authority to manage stormwater so that development in one community (e.g., Beachwood) doesn’t flood the community downstream (e.g., South Euclid)?

Paying a fee for stormwater might make us reconsider our careless land use practices. If the Wal-Mart does a good job managing stormwater on site (perhaps by installing a wetland filtration system in the corner of the parking lot, or by reducing the size of the parking lot), then it will be charged a reduced fee. Or if homeowners install rain barrels and native plant rain gardens they'll catch a break on the fee.

It’s all about taking responsibility for our environmental impacts. Our past investments in water quality have dramatically improved our quality of life and the health of our communities. Further progress will require more attention to the water washing off the land.

Why should we care about this ‘new’ thing called storm water? Isn’t that something that our cities can handle on their own?

Storm-water problems know no boundaries. Rapid growth in one community has caused floods in cities downstream. NEORSD staff and consultants have identified hundreds of stormwater problem areas. Specifically, a survey of 49 communities in the area uncovered 334 problems from trash in streams, banks eroding, basements and streets flooding. The communities said they were spending $17 million per year on maintenance and capital improvement programs to alleviate these problems.

In addition to bearing the costs of stormwater problems, local communities are facing increased environmental regulations for stormwater. In 1999, the 54 communities served by the district were regulated under the U.S. EPA Phase II Stormwater Regulations and are required to secure a stormwater permit. Allowable pollution from stormwater will also be limited by new water quality regulations that will set “total maximum daily loads” for streams from all pollution sources.

What are stormwater agencies and how do they work?

Like dozens of other stormwater agencies around the country, NEORSD introduced a fee structure for homeowners and businesses based on how much paved surface on their property, which contributes to damaged rivers and polluted drinking water.

Models of effective stormwater agencies include Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago and Portland—all are reducing water pollution, stream erosion and aquatic life impacts by developing green infrastructure, which includes green roofs, rain gardens, tree cover, even downspout disconnection and porous pavement.

"Green infrastructure has the potential to improve more than the aesthetics of our region,” says Linda Mack of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). A feasibility study in Fayetteville, Ark. concluded that if the tree canopy was increased from 27% to 40% they could realize a reduction of stormwater runoff by 31% and more than $40 million in capital improvement savings for stormwater infrastructure.

What can individuals and businesses do to help reduce storm water and (possibly) reduce fees?

Individuals and businesses can act now to slow storm water by planting very inexpensive greening ideas in their property. Examples include:

  • Rain gardens are a nice way of beautifying a property and slowing down storm water. It’s simple genius—by re-directing a downspout from your house, you avoid stormwater from your roof flooding the system and you grow a lovely garden.
  • Green roofs—like those on the Cleveland Environmental Center and on top of the Geauga Park District West Woods Nature Center—have proven it’s possible to reduce run off from impervious roof surfaces (and are a huge business opportunity for the likes of locally based Garland Roofing and Weston Solutions).
  • Rain barrels offer an inexpensive way to reduce your storm water runoff and reduce the water bill for your summer garden. Rain barrel building workshops—including those at Shaker Lakes Nature Center and the city of Cleveland summer youth jobs program—are ongoing.
  • Plant trees—They provide shade, absorb water and carbon and improve your quality of life.
  • Permeable pavement – Some stormwater authorities are collecting fees to pay for more green infrastructure, like those mentioned above, and for a new type of pavement that allows water to filter through.
  • Buy vacant land in the city and raise chickens and bees.

For more information about these green, water-saving ideas, go here.

Can I expect doing this will lower my storm water fees?

NEORSD did offer a credit for installing a rain barrel or planting a rain garden. Part of the issue is whether the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District decides to take on the administration of small greening efforts or if they can get the cities to agree to administer a process that credits homeowners for doing the right thing.

The sewer district will have an appeals process if your gravel or brick or pourous pavement driveway at home isn't counted in their initial estimate.

And non-residential properties will definitely have a credit system from the outset for bioswales, green roofs and similar green infrastructure in commercial and institutional property (The District also hopes schools will buy into the program. Teaching about stormwater and green infrastructure may be enough to earn them a credit.).

What’s so bad about storm water—doesn’t it just go down the drain?

What we do in our yards, on our streets and parking lots connects directly to the health of Lake Erie and local rivers (our source of drinking water). A new comprehensive study led by the US Geological Survey looked at the health of all freshwater fish species in North America and found that nearly 40 percent are in jeopardy. Nineteen fish species in the Great Lakes region are imperiled, including the lake sturgeon. Unchecked, stormwater runoff is a major threat to the health of Lake Erie and its fish, Noah Hall writes in Great Lakes Law Blog.

What should we expect a stormwater agency to do in order to tackle the problem?

A look at the leading practices in other cities may shed some light on what a Northeast Ohio Regional Stormwater Agency might do. Let’s look at Philadelphia where they:

  • Have a management plan for each of its five watersheds
  • Introduced legislation to allow the stormwater agency to start billing customers based on how much impervious cover is on their property, rather than the old way of estimating your sewer bill based on water use.
  • Plan to offer incentives to grow green rather than grey infrastructure—including a city council proposal for a 25% tax credit for installing a green roof (up to $100,000).
  • Are combining CSO replacement work (similar to Northeast Ohio's $2 billion, 20-year CSO project) with low impact development (LID), including repaving municipal lots and basketball courts at city parks with porous pavement, installing green roofs, and;
  • Working with the city’s building department to fast-track development projects that have an LID plan.

“We’re looking at what our impacts are from the perspective of a fish,” says Chris Crocket, Philly Water Dept. Manager of Watershed & Engineering services. “The damage done to our streams over 200 years can’t be fixed in 20 years. A whole watershed approach is our goal.”

"Philadelphia has a very aggressive program of requiring any redevelopment to be done with green infrastructure," says NEORSD's Betsey Yingling. "When we talked to them, they said, 'we don’t know what the impact (on reducing stormwater overflows) is going to be.' They’re looking at it as way of getting out of spending on a CSO.

"But they’re in (EPA) Region Three, and we’re in Region Five – when you talk to enforcement people it’s a different story here. People in The U.S. Department of Justice say, 'No way. We want you to show us measurable outcomes. We want to know exactly how many millions of gallons you’ve taken out of the system."

On a larger scale, NEORSD is still operating its Project Clean Lake a program where it will invest $42 million to remove 44 million gallons of stormwater using green infrastructure. The District agreed to fund projects as part of a consent decree with USEPA to fix the region's combined sewer overflows, an antiquated system that dumps raw sewage into the lake during heavy rains. Grants have so far paid for the new Courtyard Marriott at University Circle to install a cistern and permeable pavers that capture all stormwater from the roof and site to slowly release it back into the ground. The District also approved a $118,000 grant to Mitchell's Ice Cream for a stormwater harvesting system as the local company moves its facility to Ohio City. The District will also install green infrastructure with the city of Cleveland on its first Complete and Green Street in Slavic Village

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