KATHY LUTHER: Stormwater fees don't stop rain, but manage it

2013-06-27T00:05:00Z KATHY LUTHER: Stormwater fees don't stop rain, but manage it nwitimes.com
June 27, 2013 12:05 am  • 

One of the main storm drains on my block is at the end of my driveway. Wednesday morning as I stood out in the extreme downpour, clearing branches and debris out of this drain to allow the water to clear, I was reminded of a conversation with a region resident complaining about their stormwater fee.

Why did he have to pay a fee to manage rain? I told how chemicals and debris washes off the land to pollute area waterways. I explained federal and state permit requirements were placed on cities, towns and counties in urbanized areas to try to reduce this pollution.

He insisted this was some kind of government scam. He reasoned no fee could possibly stop the rain. True, but the fees are used to help manage the impact of the rain.

No amount of fees can provide enough workers to keep every possible gutter clean at all times, or to build the facilities needed to manage the impact of the water generated when a storm dumps 2 inches of rain in 37 minutes, which happened Wednesday.

So what is done with these stormwater fees? First, stormwater fees are used to comply with the municipal separate stormwater system (MS4) permits. These requirements include public education and involvement programs. These programs might support people to bring educational programs to schools, to encourage rain garden planting, to promote rain barrel installation, to conduct water fairs or train volunteer water quality monitors.

MS4 permits require communities to establish local construction site permit and inspection programs to prevent silt from running into rivers and creeks.

MS4 permits require pollution-reducing design standards be placed on new development, which must be monitored and enforced. Cities, towns and counties must keep an eye on storm drains for possible illicit pollution sources. They must improve material and water management at their facilities. Complying with these permits takes substantial resources.

In addition, many communities use stormwater fees to replace aging stormwater pipes and culverts, separate combined sewers that allow raw sewage discharges, and maintain and improve the drainage infrastructure.

Conventional development continues to replace naturally absorbent vegetation and soils with compacted turf and hard surfaces like roofs and pavement. More water that must be removed from property, stored and slowed to prevent flooding. This challenge will continue to grow as climate changes result in more frequent extreme weather events.

So do the fees stop the rain? No. Do they prevent extreme weather events from impacting us? No. Yet they are critically important. They enable local governments to reduce water pollution and manage the water volume generated by the urban and suburban landscapes we call home.

Kathy Luther is director of environmental management for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. The opinions are the writer's.

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