January 06, 2017

Stormwater: to Fee or Not to Fee?

Chelsea Mattioda, Business Development Fellow

The average person does not think much about how we manage a stormwater event, but this is a challenge municipalities in Massachusetts and the U.S. are being forced to confront.

In urban and suburban areas, stormwater tends to flow over non-porous surfaces, such as parking lots and sidewalks, where it would otherwise soak into the ground. Stormwater runoff picks up pollutants and debris, which end up in bodies of water that people use for swimming, fishing and drinking. The Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) for municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) under the Clean Water Act obligates communities to address this problem.

Officials are working to address stormwater runoff through programs including a variety of measures like pollution prevention, green infrastructure, public education, illicit discharge detection and elimination, and stricter regulations on runoff from construction sites, which tend to have many non-porous surfaces.

Beyond figuring out solutions to reduce pollution from storm water runoff, accessing capital to implement them can be a significant challenge. Most commonly, municipalities use general funds from property taxes to finance stormwater management. These funds are already established and do not require a formal public approval process for allocation. Unfortunately, it is difficult for municipalities to rely on this money to implement stormwater management programs, since there is so much competition for it from other programs like those benefiting public schools, roads and parks.

Many other municipalities, such as Newton, Chicopee and Reading in Massachusetts, and an estimated 800 towns across the country, have established stormwater utility fees, similar to water and sewer fees that residents already pay. Utility fees offer a reliable, consistent source of funding for the development of stormwater infrastructure and subsequent treatment.

However, establishing utility fees requires an approval by vote from the local public officials, and therefore requires public support. Despite the benefits provided by a stormwater utility, they can be somewhat controversial; some towns like Dover, New Hampshire have seen public resistance, because many people believe the fee is unnecessary, or consider it an additional tax.

When the public does not understand the problems associated with stormwater runoff or how a stormwater utility functions, it can present a major obstacle to implementation. Municipalities must be thorough in their outreach and education prior to attempting to set up the utility fee.

Stormwater utilities are still relatively new, and problems related to stormwater runoff are not as well understood as drinking and wastewater needs. It’s time for people to pay attention to stormwater and the value of managing it.