February 9, 2017: Belmont’s drought response: Increasingly ‘too late’

February 9, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

While the poor quality of water that Belmont dumps into the Mystic River has gained considerable attention in recent years, the quantity of water in Belmont, not merely the quality, should also be of concern.  In five of the last seven months of 2016, the northeast region of Massachusetts, the region of which Belmont is a part, has been subject to a Drought Warning by the state.  In the state’s system of drought classifications, Drought Warning is just one step down from a Drought Emergency.

Under a Drought Warning, Belmont is not under the threat of mandatory water conservation measures.  Mandatory state restrictions on water use, such as a ban on watering one’s lawn, can only be imposed when the drought becomes a Drought Emergency.

Nonetheless, according to Belmont resident Julia Blatt, executive director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, Belmont should take the Drought Warning seriously even during these winter months.  People have been poorly conditioned by other warning systems, Blatt believes.  For example, when one hears a winter storm warning issued, the caution is about a storm that will occur in the future.  In contrast, Blatt says, a Drought Warning is not a prediction of a future event.  The Drought Warning under which Belmont has been placed means that the drought is here today.

By the time a Drought Warning has been issued, in other words, it is largely too late for people most effectively to respond.  The adverse impacts of the drought are not coming, they have already arrived.  In addition, Blatt says, those adverse effects cannot be alleviated simply through a few rain storms.  It takes months of wet weather for the impacts of a drought to be undone.  Moreover, she continues, hard rain storms are not generally helpful in ending drought conditions.  Big storms result in rain water quickly draining into the streets, being funneled into streams and rivers through stormwater pipes, and eventually flowing into the ocean.  In contrast, lots of snow could help.  Snow can melt slowly, soak into the ground, and help replenish ground water and drinking water sources.

Belmont residents are in no danger of turning their kitchen faucet on and not having water come out.  That, however, is not an entirely crazy notion.  Cambridge, for example, was forced last fall to begin to buy water from the Mass Water Resources Authority because of the decline in water levels in the city’s own reservoir. That need to purchase MWRA water not only imposed substantial costs on Cambridge residents, but also reduced available water supplies to other MWRA communities (of which Belmont is one).

I realize that as I write today, snow is on the ground and the Super Bowl (and, even more importantly, the coming start to baseball’s Spring Training) are more on peoples’ minds than things like restrictions on watering one’s lawn.  In fact, however, that is precisely the point.  The longer the Belmont community postpones its responses to the existence of drought conditions in Massachusetts, the more likely two things will occur.  First, the restrictions that may eventually be imposed will need to be more severe.  Second, even those more severe restrictions will be a less effective response to the drought conditions since it will increasingly be “too late.”

Through its water department, the town should be taking an aggressive response to the drought that has befallen Belmont (and many other parts of Massachusetts).  At the least, community education regarding ways to implement water conservation, even during these cold weather months, would be an important beneficial response to dry summer weather.  Waiting until the summer months to respond to continuing dry weather will be too late.

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.

June 19, 2014: Is “Town of Homes” image real?

Belmont Citizen Herald: June 19, 2014

A Town of Homes.  How many times have you heard that description applied to Belmont?  What image does that phrase conjure up in your mind?

Too frequently, the image conveyed is of a community of single-family detached homes.  That image is wrong.  In Belmont, out of roughly 9,600 housing units, nearly 3,200 are two-family units.  Another 950 are three- and four-family units, though the count of triple-deckers is not separately tracked by the Census Bureau.

If the error was only one of image, perhaps it would not make much difference in the real world.  Unfortunately, however, public policy is too often developed based on that erroneous image.  And it is costing people real money.

One such problem lies in Belmont’s water rates.  Belmont has what is called an “inclining block rate structure” for its water rates.  That phrase says that the price people are charged for water increases as their water usage increases.  Belmont customers pay $5.68 per hundred cubic feet (CCF) for the first 30 CCF of water used, and pay $6.53 per CCF for all consumption over 30 CCF.  The average Belmont household consumes about 20 CCF of water per month.

In many ways, the inclining block rate makes sense.  Increasing the price of water as usage goes up gives people an economic incentive to conserve.  If reducing your water consumption will lower the price you pay, people will more likely engage in reasonable water conservation efforts (e.g., not running the faucet while brushing teeth; fixing running toilets and dripping faucets).

Using the inclining block rate to promote water conservation, however, does not make sense when applied to a double- or triple-decker home.  In Belmont, most double- and triple-decker homes are on one meter and receive only one bill for the entire house rather than having a separate meter for each unit in the house. As a result, each bill is based on the combined usage of multiple families rather than on the individual usage of each separate housing unit.

When the inclining block rate is applied to these homes, therefore, the higher rate is triggered almost automatically, not because the families are high users, but rather because the usage of two (or more) families is being added together before the higher price is applied.  That’s not fair.

The solution to the immediate inequity is simple.  I am currently working as a consultant in an electric rate case in Minnesota, proposing an inclining block rate for Xcel Energy, a large multi-state electric utility. To avoid inequities to multi-unit buildings, we have recommended that Xcel follow the lead of Minnesota Power, its sister utility, in increasing the first block of usage in proportion to the number of units in a home when a multi-family unit is served with one meter.

In Belmont, that would mean simply that where the town serves a double-decker with one meter, the higher rates wouldn’t be charged until after 60 CCF (2 units x 30 CCF/unit); the limit for a triple-decker would be 90 CCF.  Our Board of Selectmen should make this simple change in Belmont’s water rates starting in the coming year.

The bigger problem needs more active attention.  The bigger problem in Belmont involves the inequities that arise when our policymakers act as if the single-family image conveyed by the phrase “A Town of Homes” adequately reflects reality. Until that changes, residents of Belmont’s double- and triple-deckers will too often face policies, such as those embedded in the unnecessarily high water rates, that do not adequately recognize, let alone address, their needs.