September 24, 2015: Stormwater runoff, “you pave, you pay”

September 24, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Belmont is in trouble with the feds again.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released its current assessment of local water quality in the Mystic River watershed.  The EPA found that, of the Mystic River’s 21 communities, Belmont’s waterways, in particular, were in horrible shape. It gave Winns Brook a failing “F” on the stream’s cleanliness.

One of the primary sources of the offending pollution, the EPA has said, is “uncontrolled urban stormwater runoff.”  “Stormwater,” the Metropolitan Area Planning Council explains, “is the natural result of rain storms and other wet weather events.” Allowing runoff to seep into the ground, MAPC says, filters out harmful pollution. When a property is covered with hard surfaces, however, the water (along with all of its pollutants) flows into our streets, and then into our stormwater drains, thus ending up in our streams and rivers.

From Belmont’s perspective, the problem of controlling stormwater runoff involves being able to find the money.  Belmont residents currently pay for the town’s stormwater system through their sewer rates.  Continuing that structure makes little sense.  Nearly all state and federal programs that provide grant money to help local governments upgrade stormwater systems require matching local dollars through a dedicated funding stream.  Belmont’s current system of funding its stormwater system through sewer rates is not viewed as such a funding stream.

Because Belmont cannot access these state and federal grants, the town must fund its stormwater expenditures entirely with local ratepayer dollars rather than transferring some of those costs to existing federal and state programs. In addition, the town has fewer dollars overall to repair and improve the removal of stormwater runoff from local streets to effectively control both flooding and pollution runoff.

Belmont’s existing system of funding the stormwater system through sewer bills also creates substantial inequities.  Sewer bills are based on the amount of water consumed in a home.  Larger households, as well as households who have people home all day (such as households with young children), have larger water bills and thus larger sewer bills. Accordingly, they also pay a higher bill to control stormwater runoff.  The level of water consumption by these households, however, bears no relationship to the extent to which the household causes stormwater runoff and creates stormwater runoff costs.

People who cause stormwater runoff should pay for the resulting stormwater controls. Creating a “stormwater utility” does just that.  It imposes a stormwater charge based on the amount of impermeable surface that each property in Belmont has. Those revenues are then subtracted out of dollars that would be collected through sewer rates.

The Town of Yarmouth considered such a system through a DIMS (Does It Make Sense) study.  “A stormwater user fee is similar to a drinking water or wastewater fee,”  Yarmouth found. The fee is based on how much a resident “uses” the system. As the Yarmouth DIMS report found, “use of the stormwater system is measured in terms of the amount of hard surface a property has on it – parking, rooftops, sidewalks, etc.” EPA puts it more simply; under a stormwater utility, “you pave, you pay.”

When the stormwater bylaw that Town Meeting approved in the Spring of 2013 was first drafted, it included a provision for the creation of a stormwater utility for Belmont.  That provision, however, was removed before being presented to Town Meeting.

Adopting a stormwater utility for Belmont was a good idea when first proposed in 2013.  Given the town’s most recent trials and travails with state and federal environmental officials, it remains a good idea today. A stormwater utility for Belmont is good economics, good government, and good environmental/consumer policy.

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