Until now, the rain that’s fallen on Harrisonburg’s impervious bits – roofs, roads, parking lots, etc. – has found its quiet way down the storm drains, into our friendly local creeks, and on around the bend. But it’s soon going to demand a lot more attention by trickling into the checkbooks of all of us friendly local property owners by way of the city’s new stormwater utility fee.
This new fee will cost the average city homeowner somewhere in the range of $50 per year, and is being put in place to help the city meet some pretty stiff requirements to make the water flowing quietly down our storm drains a lot less polluted.
The fine print involves a frightening mess of acronyms – TMDL, MS4, WIP (phases I, II & III), etc. – and is surrounded by the monumental chaos of various bureaucracies trying to enact an extremely costly and controversial bit of public policy. (Here’s as good a place as any to start with a broad overview; here’s a previous OSH article about this issue as it pertains to Harrisonburg).
For now, suffice it to say that this new fee is part of the bigger regional effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. That’s been going on for decades, but it’s gotten a lot more serious now. Under threat of fines and other sanctions, the federal government is requiring Virginia to make its water a lot cleaner. And thus is the Va. Dept. of Environmental Quality requiring, under the threat of fines and other sanctions, cities to make their stormwater a lot cleaner. And thus did city council unanimously adopt the stormwater ordinance this week. (The matter will be up for a second reading and final passage next month).
If you own a home in Harrisonburg, as of July 1, you’ll owe a few dozen more bucks to city, which will use it to do things like build a “regenerative stormwater conveyance” in the median of East Market St. And I think that’s a good thing. Blacks Run and downstream should benefit. Lord knows Blacks Run needs it, and that sort of thing doesn’t happen for free.
Each property owner’s fee will be based on that property’s impervious surface area, as calculated by the city’s analysis of aerial imagery. According to public works, my place on Collicello Street – it’s a pretty standard c. 2,000-sq-ft, two-story deal, plus a little backyard shed, plus a little patio that they hopefully didn’t count since it’s dry-laid brick and therefore entirely permeable – has 1,116 square feet of impermeable surface. That’ll cost me $21.00/year. If I want, I could reduce that fee by up to 50 percent if I get intense about mitigation with “best management practices” like rain barrels and conservation landscaping and etc. To be honest, I’ll probably just hold the course with my own “not too shabby management practices” and pay the extra $21. (For more detail on how the fees are calculated and how you, too, can best manage your stormwater, lots of detail in this document.)
Assuming the ordinance takes full effect next month, the city will launch a GIS website that will allow property owners to check out their specific situations. In the meantime, if you call and ask nicely, they’ll probably tell you. In total, public works projects to raise close to $2 million per year with the new fee.
Back now to the basic premise of all this: cleaner runoff into Blacks Run, with specific state-mandated targets for reduction nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment.
The basic unit here is reduced pounds per year. I.e., by 2018, the entirety of stormwater running off of land within city limits each year will contain 347 fewer pounds of nitrogen, 34 fewer pounds of phosphorous and 37,978 fewer pounds of sediment than compared to a 2009 baseline. As you can see, things start easy and get a whole lot harder.
The first big project that’s planned is the regenerative stormwater conveyance along East Market Street. Public works staff described it at the city council meeting as a low-hanging fruit sort of project that will treat water running off 96 acres in one of the city’s highly impervious commercial areas. At a cost of $606,000, it will remove 18.6 pounds of phosphorous per year from the city’s total discharge (its nitrogen and sediment reductions haven’t been calculated yet; since it’s impractical to actually sample runoff as it’s running off, the city’s progress toward its stormwater goals will be measured by engineers’ on-paper calculations of a given project’s effect.)
On the plus side, the East Market thing gets the city more than half the way to its 2018 target for 34 pounds of phosphorous reduction . At the same time, this low-hanging fruit deal gets the city just 2.7 percent of the way to the 2028 end goal of 673 fewer pounds of stormwater phosphorous.
The math here works out to about $33,000 per pound of phosphorous removed. At that rate, achieving the full 2028 reduction will cost $22 million. But that’s the low-hanging fruit rate. You can certainly bet the final total will be much higher. Maybe much, much higher, though no one really seems to know how much.
One other math thing. The East Market St. project will nab low-hanging pollution fruit on 96 acres. That’s getting close to 1 percent of the total land area of the city, (c. 11,200 acres) and the total phosphorous reductions aren’t even going to reach 3 percent of what the state is ultimately asking for. Given that that 96-acre area is parking lot- and roof-intensive, and that big swaths of the remainder of the city aren’t, it’s kind of hard to imagine how this will even be possible, regardless of final cost (and assuming that nitrogen and sediment reductions are no more difficult to come by than phosphorous).
There was some talk at the council meeting about nutrient trading, which might help, but it felt very vague. Fuzzy math, vagueness and confusion have been a huge gorilla in the room when it comes to improving water quality from farm runoff in the area, and that seems to be the case here too. That’s not to say the intentions aren’t good, nor to cast aspersions on the East Market regenerative stormwater conveyance, nor to suggest that nothing should be done. It’s just… well, hopefully, for the sake of clean water and public budgets, there’s a lot more low-hanging stormwater fruit out there for the city to pick.