Meet the City’s Next Big Infrastructure Project: Stormwater Control

Earlier this year, the city convened a new Stormwater Advisory Committee to help it “in the implementation of a Stormwater Management Plan that will meet the requirements set forth by the Commonwealth of Virginia.” It’s hardly a sexy topic, but it’s becoming an increasingly important one for anyone who cares about things like water quality, utility costs and public expenditures.

The basic issue at hand is the fact that many local streams and the entire Chesapeake Bay they drain into are polluted and therefore, subject to cleanup provisions under the federal Clean Water Act. In 2010, the US EPA issued a new cleanup plan for the entire Bay watershed that requires drastic pollution reductions from farms, sewage treatment plants and municipal storm sewer systems.

Harrisonburg is not exempt, as the storm drains that line our streets feed directly into our creeks through the city’s storm sewer system. Nearly all of Harrisonburg’s storm sewers drain into Blacks Run, one of the very, very many streams on the state’s impaired waters list. Small portions of the city are also in the Cooks Creek and Smith Creek watersheds, also impaired.

Hburg drainage

Orange lines show drainage boundaries within city limits (red). The Sunset Heights Branch flows into Cooks Creek. Map adapted from one published by City of Harrisonburg.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL (the official name for the hideously complicated federal plan to clean up the Bay) is focused on three primary pollutants: nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment. All of them are implicated in Harrisonburg’s new storm sewer overhaul. Careless lawn fertilizing can send N and P right through the pipes into Blacks Run; sediment gets pumped downstream when heavy rain sends huge volumes of water gushing off “impervious surfaces” like parking lots and rooftops.

This whole deal isn’t just another round of finger-wagging about lawn care or filling local brochure racks with rain garden pamphlets. At the EPA’s behest, the state will be assigning Harrisonburg pollution reduction targets that it has to meet. If not, fines will be levied (a threat that hasn’t hung over previous, state-led stream cleanup plans like the one currently in place for Blacks Run).

Detail of storm drains (green squares) and storm sewers (green lines) in downtown Harrisonburg, from city GIS website.

Detail of storm drains (green squares) and storm sewers (green lines) in downtown Harrisonburg, from the city GIS website. That’s Blacks Run squiggling around at center-left.

The new Stormwater Advisory Committee has only met twice, and the city has yet to receive specific target numbers for pollution reductions from the state. That means that cost estimates are extremely vague at this point, although the cost is certainly going to be high. For decades, storm sewers were designed to drain runoff into streams as quickly as possible – out of street, out of mind. Retrofitting the storm sewer system to have our cake (non-flooded streets) and eat it too (clean streams) is a tall order.

BayWatershedMap_mjs4

Chesapeake Bay watershed. Image from US EPA.

In 2011, the Virginia Senate Finance Committee estimated a total price tag between $9.4 billion and $11.5 billion to meet the new stormwater requirements across the state’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Extrapolating from these numbers, city staff have estimated total costs to Harrisonburg in the range of $48 and $80 million between now and 2025. That averages to somewhere between $4 million and $6.7 million per year – more or less around what the city budgeted this year ($5.0 million) for parks and recreation. Stay tuned.

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2 Comments

  1. Deb Fitzgerald says:

    Brilliant piece. Important and timely, and going to be very very expensive.

  2. Jon Clark says:

    Cost is extremely high. There are added “fees” (read: taxes) on developers that will be passed onto the end user. In addition much higher taxes to keep up with the regulation.

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