Written by Brandon Hunt
What is a stormwater utility?
Similar to how gas, electricity, and water and sewage are managed as a utility by a city government, stormwater runoff is increasingly also managed as a utility. A stormwater utility handles the stormwater runoff that is generated from houses, businesses, and other properties in a given watershed, as well as the drainage systems to ensure efficient and effective management of that system. A fee is then paid by each property owner, proportional to how much stormwater is generated by their property. These fees are then used by the city to help pay for stormwater infrastructure, planning, and management. Stormwater utility fees are often designed to include inducements for property owner to reduce the amount of stormwater generated on their property. Generally, adopting certain types of green infrastructure practices will result in a lower stormwater utility fee.
Green infrastructure are stormwater management practices which mimic the natural water cycle by capturing rainwater closer to where it falls, thus minimizing runoff to our local waterways. Installing green infrastructure – such as a rain gardens, rain barrels, porous pavement, tree plantings, or green roofs – helps reduce the amount of stormwater runoff coming from a parcel. By encouraging the implementation of green infrastructure, a community can both environmentally and financially benefit. Installing green infrastructure has the potential to financially benefit the property owner as credits to reduce their fee payment!
For example, the city of Minneapolis classifies residential properties into three groups, based on the amount of impervious surface area on the property. If a property owner reduces the amount of impervious surface on their property or treats their impervious surfaces, their fee is proportionally lowered. Portland, Oregon has had a stormwater utility in place since 1977. Its Clean River Rewards Program gives ratepayers a means of opting out of some or all of their stormwater fee. It is effectively a discount for property owners who are being proactive about managing the stormwater runoff on their property.
What are the benefits of a stormwater utility?
A lot of common misconceptions and confusion surface when the suggestion of adopting a stormwater utility arises. Citizens are often worried that they are being unnecessarily taxed for something that is naturally occurring over which they have no control. Like other utility systems, stormwater systems need to be maintained and managed to ensure they do what they were designed to do. Without stable, equitable funding from residents, a city runs the risk of failing to properly maintain and manage the stormwater. Failing stormwater infrastructure can create a number of problems, including property or infrastructure damage, increased health risks associated with water quality, and disruption to traffic and transportation routes. Nearly every citizen already pays their water, gas, or sewage utility fee without a second thought. These are critically important utilities that affect everyday lives because people are immediately affected by their access to heat, water, and waste removal. The effects of stormwater management are harder to recognize because it isn’t always easy to see the long-term and widespread consequences of good or bad stormwater management practices.