Since the 1970s, municipalities have increasingly established stormwater utilities supported by user fees to provide for a more dedicated and stable funding source than tax revenues. Not surprisingly, The most critical challenge of stormwater utility managers is inadequate funding, according to the 2010 Stormwater Utility Survey released by Black & Veatch in September.
The firm's biennial survey is administered specifically to city, county, and other regional stormwater agencies that have already established a stormwater utility. The latest survey provides valuable benchmark information from 70 stormwater utilities that span 20 states, and 81% of stormwater utilities surveyed represent a city jurisdictional area with the remaining 19% representing counties and regions.
The information spans eight functional areas of stormwater utility operations including organization, planning, operations, user fees and billing, and best management practices. The survey also includes the average monthly residential stormwater charges from each one of the participants and throws light on seven key trends.
Many municipalities nationwide have combined sewer systems that convey both wastewater and stormwater to treatment facilities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 770 cities and towns across the country have combined sewer systems. During wet weather conditions, wastewater treatment facilities and collection systems can be overwhelmed with the volume of combined flows. This leads to sewer spills and/or the direct discharge of untreated combined sewer overflows into surface waters, adversely affecting water quality.
To gauge how stormwater utilities with combined sewer overflow issues recover the costs associated with overflow mitigation, Black & Veatch included two questions specific to recovery of these costs in the 2010 Stormwater Utility Survey. Of the 21% of survey respondents who indicated that their utility is dealing with combined sewer overflow mitigation efforts, only one-third currently recover mitigation costs in their stormwater user fee.
Funding inadequacy continues to plague a number of stormwater utilities. In 2002, 53% of the utilities surveyed indicated that available funding met most of their needs. In the latest survey, however, only 36% of the utilities indicated that funding is adequate to meet most of their needs and 10% responded that funding was not sufficient to meet even the "most urgent" needs.
The funding gap appears to be increasing in spite of the significant rate increases that some utilities have implemented. This trend is fairly evident among the 19 stormwater utilities that have participated in every biennial survey since 2001. Of the 19 utilities, 10 utilities have increased rates by more than 50% since 2001. Even with that magnitude of rate increase, six of those utilities including cities of Palo Alto, Calif.; Tulsa, Okla..; Wichita, Kan.; Charlotte, N.C.; High Point, N.C.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa currently have funding only to meet the "most urgent" needs. Four of these utilities that had adequate funding to "meet most needs" in 2001 have since experienced financial decline in spite of implementing rate increases.
A large variation in monthly residential charge exists among the responding stormwater utilities nationwide. The city of Auburndale, Fla., with a population of about 14,000, had the lowest monthly residential charge of $0.75. At the other end of the spectrum, the city of Portland, Ore., with a population of slightly more than 580,000, had the highest monthly residential charge of $19.80. The median monthly residential charge among survey participants in 2010 is $4.19.
A few key trends observed in the latest survey, in various areas of stormwater operations, are described below.
Planning. Many of the program planning and user fee billing trends have remained unchanged since 2005. For example, Flood Control, Monitoring Water Quality, and Addressing Customer Complaints continue to remain the three most important performance indicators in measuring the overall success of a stormwater program.
Billing. With respect to stormwater billing, 75% of the utilities have integrated stormwater charges into their water utility billing, and this trend has remained unchanged since 2005.
Best Management Practices. The biennial surveys consistently indicate that more than 90% of the utilities continue to use public education as one of the key tools to protect water quality. In addition, there appears to be an increasing trend with regards to proactive water quality monitoring and implementation of illicit discharge detection programs. In 2005, only 64% of the utilities reported monitoring stormwater quality and 71% reported having illicit discharge detection programs. In the 2010 survey, utilities engaging in stormwater quality monitoring and in illicit discharge detection had increased to 81% and 94% respectively. Compared with the previous years, utilities are increasingly reporting pesticides as a contaminant of great concern in addition to sediments and nutrients.
The enhanced use of best management practices in stormwater management appears to be aligned with an increasing focus on NPDES compliance needs and wet weather issues.
Technology. Stormwater utilities are taking advantage of technological advances to determine land use delineations and the gross and impervious area square footage, which are predominantly used as the basis for establishing stormwater user fees. For instance, in 2005, only 42% of the utilities indicated using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and aerial ortho imagery as the principal sources of determining impervious areas, whereas more than 65% of the utilities now report using these technologies.
Stormwater programs that are financed by user charges are generally better positioned to meet increasing regulatory requirements and a diversity of challenges. On the other hand, stormwater programs that rely on general fund revenues have to face the constant challenge of competing with other priorities such as fire, police, and community services. However, as one-third of the respondents have indicated in this latest survey, financial adequacy and rate setting continue to be the primary challenges even in many municipalities where stormwater user fees have already been established.
As financial and regulatory pressures increase, stormwater managers, like other water/wastewater utility managers, will have to focus on alternative approaches including watershed-based collaboration, innovative approaches to recovering fixed costs, well designed incentive programs, and greater public-private partnerships.
Kumar (email@example.com) is a principal consultant at Black & Veatch Corporation in Philadelphia.