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Next to the Mississippi River delta in the Gulf of Mexico, no other river basin in North America struggles with excess nutrients more than the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The 64,000-square-mile estuary is the nation's largest, encompassing parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia.

Stormwater runoff is one of the worst offenders. Through the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, the EPA's ultimate goal is to reduce nitrogen by 110 million pounds/year and total phosphorous by 6.3 million pounds annually. Last year, dissatisfied with the steps taken so far to reach these goals, the Sierra Club and five other environmental groups sued the agency for not enforcing stormwater permits and demanded national numeric nutrient criteria for stormwater discharge.

It's not clear how the new load requirements, Clean Water permits that are up for renewal this year, and new stormwater regulations being considered by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation will affect jurisdictions in the watershed. But all indications point to tougher environmental regulations during the worst downturn since the Depression.

Two-thirds of the 62.5-squaremile city of Richmond, Va., is served by a municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4); the remaining onethird by a combined sewer system (CSS). The drainage system, which includes both natural and manmade components, discharges into creeks that flow into the James River, which is a Chesapeake Bay tributary, as well as directly into the river itself. Because the city's stormwater permit requires that it take steps to protect streams entering the river, it must improve the quality of the stormwater that flows into these streams.

Though the city has identified what it needs to do to make this happen, before this year it had allocated no more than $2 million in general revenues annually for the system — not nearly enough to cover necessary improvements and maintenance.

Reflecting the lower property and sales tax revenues common to most U.S. communities, the city council approved a 2010-2011 budget in May that was $25 million less than the current year's budget.

But of course the drivers requiring proactive stormwater management planning and implementation haven't gone away.

Because the city plans to issue a bond in one or two years, officials didn't want to risk lowering an AA rating by dipping into the city's $48 million reserves.

So although proposed on four previous occasions in different forms and service levels, in May the council finally approved the creation of a stormwater utility effective July 1.

Because the Richmond Department of Public Utilities (DPU) was already providing natural gas, water, and wastewater treatment, and street lighting for 130,000 customers, as well as managing the city's Stormwater Management Program, it was the logical choice to house the new stormwater utility. The department treats up to 132 mgd of drinking water for several counties as well as Richmond residents and up to 70 mgd of wastewater. In 2008, it received 350,000 phone calls, issued 1.7 million bills, and read 2.2 million gas and water meters. 2010 operating expenses are budgeted at $324 million, and capital expenditures at $153 million.

By dedicating funds directly to stormwater management, the department can provide a comprehensive program for:

  • Regulatory compliance including water quality monitoring, floodplain management, and meeting permit requirements
  • Capital improvements including storm sewer installation, culvert and ditch upgrades, stream restoration, water quality retrofits, and storm drainage master planning and engineering
  • Operation and maintenance including inspection and maintenance of catch basins, drainage ditches, detention ponds, and other best management practice (BMP) facilities
  • Asset renewal including catch basin and storm drain rehabilitation and replacement.

Though two-thirds of the 73,000 parcels for which the stormwater utility is issuing assessments are single-family residences, less than one-third of revenues will come from these properties, which will pay an average of $45/year

But while nonresidential properties can apply for credits to cover up to half their annual fee, depending on the methods they use for capturing and using runoff, the city charter doesn't provide the same allowance for homeowners.

This means the city must write and submit enabl ing language, which DPU Director Chris Beschler and the city council's Charter Change Committee are working on, to the state legislature.

Unlike many communities that have launched stormwater utilities, the department issued assessments before sending out bills; and mailed the assessments over four weeks — rather than all at once — based on city council districts.

As expected, call volumes are 10% to 15% higher than usual since property owners began receiving their assessments in May. But by staggering the mailings, the department's call center and billing operations employees can handle the additional calls and billing tasks required by a separate stormwater operation. The schedule also provided an opportunity for public education and time to correct errors in impervious surface area calculations, stormwater class, or property ownership. So while 25 new engineering and field operations positions were created to staff stormwater functions, additional administrative staff isn't necessary.

To ensure consistency in the information provided to property owners, the department provided stormwaterspecific training and tools to six of the 23 customer service representatives in its call center and gave the remaining 17 agents "frequently asked questions" scripts in case customers are routed to them. Supervisors and managers were also trained.

Property owners have 60 days from the date of their assessment to file an appeal.

To date, approximately two-thirds of the 100 appeals that have been submitted have been found to be legitimate and resolved.

"Establishing the utility ensures that the business of stormwater management receives adequate financial support independent of the city's tax rate and general fund," says Beschler. "Our approach is equitable because all contributors to stormwater runoff share the costs of maintaining and improving the city's storm drainage system."