Money falling from the sky like rain—if only every stormwater utility could be so lucky. But since it isn't money that's falling from the sky and flooding your area, municipalities have to find other ways to fund the various practices they have to put in place to meet National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems (NPDES) requirements.
The fastest route to funding NPDES requirements is through user fees. Employing best management practices (BMPs) isn't free, so many municipalities turn to their constituents to fund already-stressed stormwater utilities.
The first step in determining a rate structure should come long before the stormwater utility is actually formed. The municipality, county, or stormwater utility first must determine what it wants its program to be. Jon Sorensen, P.E., senior stormwater consultant with AMEC Earth and Environment's Colorado office, equates this decision with buying a car.
“They have to decide if they want a Toyota program or a Lexus program,” he says. This decision will help determine the rate, since rates support the cost of service and the community's need.
Many communities first vote on whether to start a stormwater utility—and eventually charge its constituents. The public education and outreach leading up to this vote can be challenging, since residents don't understand the connection between rain and federal regulations regarding water treatment—and they certainly don't want to pay a fee to take care of Mother Nature. On the other hand, if a community has had trouble with flooding or water quality, residents are more easily persuaded to approve a stormwater utility.
Public outreach—required through the NPDES permit—is key, and the mantra is simple: education, education, education.
The timeline for setting up a utility varies. Sorensen says AMEC starts working with clients a year before the program starts and remains on board through implementation. This planning phase is key, since it builds the backbone for the utility in the years to come.
Jason Peek, P.E., engineering administrator for Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, agrees that this building process is vital to a successful program. As project lead, he worked to get the county's NPDES permit approved and started a citizens' advisory committee, which lasted three years. Although the county could have satisfied just the minimum requirements, it decided to implement a mid-level program in conjunction with a consultant.
In 2006, the Georgia utility went live after three years of hard work. Since its inception, seven people have been hired to staff the Athens-Clark County Stormwater Management Program. Over three years, $450,000 in property tax revenues was allocated to the program so the utility could ramp up—both staff and equipment—over time. The least costly tasks, such as retrofitting old equipment, were completed first; capital investments—including the purchase of additional equipment and a watershed inventory program—began last year.
Peek says that there are still three issues to tackle to keep the utility running smoothly: help consumers understand that the utility is not just “taking their money,” but working to mitigate flooding; develop long-term public-education plans; and focus on three specific neighborhood watershed management plans.