Stormwater fees are increasingly being used to address runoff.  Moderator Gary Belan of American Rivers led a panel including Adam Ortiz, Director for the Department of the Environment, Prince George’s County, Maryland, Rick Gray, Former Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Alicia Smith, from The Junction Coalition in Toledo, Ohio, Darryl Haddock, Environmental Education Director of the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance and Andy Kricun, Executive Director and Chief Engineer at Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA) to discuss what these leaders are doing to keep stormwater fees fair and affordable in their communities.

Central to every panelist’s strategy was engaging the community.  As Alicia Smith stated, “It’s about how you do the work and who you do the work with.” But there are a lot of steps to community engagement. One of the first is listening. Adam Ortiz described the challenges he faced while trying to meet the EPA’s Clean Water mandate by replacing impervious with pervious surfaces. He described his first attempt at working with churches (due to their large impervious asphalt parking lots) as a failure and explained that some of his initial assumptions about the churches turned out to be wrong. Thanks to persistence and determination, he and church representatives eventually “learned how to hear each other”, understood the other side’s story and built trust. “It’s not over after one meeting or even 20 meetings”, Adam said.  But it was worth the effort as more and more churches came on board with the necessary.

Another critical step toward community engagement is education. An important lesson for water professionals is that education goes both ways. Water professionals need to educate communities about water solutions like green infrastructure but they also need to beeducated about the issues within the community. Alicia Smith emphasized the importance of sharing information between citizens and between generations of citizens. An example of this is how, in an underprivileged community in Toledo, green leaders were established for each city block and young people were mentored by the elderly in order to provide both inspiration and aspiration toward a better quality of life.

Water professionals need the best data to help solve problems. Often, the community has the best, most accurate data. Andy Kricun described how CCMUA went directly to Camden residents to ask where the flooding from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) was occurring in order to address the issue as quickly as possible. In Atlanta, when data wasn’t available from outside sources, Darryl Haddock and the Western Atlanta Watershed Alliance asked residents to help collect data. This kind of collaboration not only met the need for information, but also created a voice for community members.

Panelists agreed that high visibility and awareness of efforts to address stormwater is important when it comes to gaining acceptance of stormwater fees. Camden and Atlanta both recommended starting with small projects such as rain barrels and gardens, then building to larger projects over time. Rick Gray explained how early green infrastructure projects in Lancaster helped build acceptance of stormwater fees long before the fees were actually imposed. In Lancaster, each time a new park or green community project was completed, signs saying, “Green infrastructure at work” were posted in the area to ensure residents understood how green infrastructure helped improve the community. After completion of six projects and four or five years of seeing the infrastructure signs, the community not only associated green infrastructure with a better quality of life, they asked for more green infrastructure in a park known as “Peace Park” and raised the money for the park themselves. When the time finally came to impose stormwater fees, the goodwill built around green infrastructure eliminated any community opposition to the fees. In fact, the only opposition at the final hearing to approve the fees was two attorneys for commercial interests with very large parking lots.

Transparency and accountability are also important. In Prince George’s County Rick Oritz described how performance metrics and a map showing the location of projects and the progress toward each project’s goals is updated every night so the community can actually see where their dollars are going and the impact of those dollars. In Toledo, Alicia Smith stressed the importance of quantifying results in ways the community can understand and appreciate. Information regarding the dollars saved through green infrastructure projects is shared as well as more tangible and perhaps more meaningful benefits such as the fact that 13 blocks were saved from flooding, four demolished homes were replaced by green space and 1300 families were helped by providing funding to pay for plumbing repairs.

There was consensus among the panelists that stormwater fee acceptance requires engagement of a wide group of stakeholders instead of a top down approach. Lancaster’s multi-stakeholder panel unanimously endorsed a tiered stormwater fee schedule based on the amount of impervious surface per property while the Prince George’s County turned the “rain tax” required to meet the EPA Clean Water mandate into an opportunity to address community needs, use projects to attract and engage innovative private companies, generate jobs, build business mentorship programs and incorporate educational experiences into every project. Green infrastructure not only attracted private partners to help grow the local economy, green infrastructure projects were supported by non-profit community partners such as schools, churches and community organizations.  

While community engagement, education, visibility, transparency, and a multi-stakeholder approach are necessary to address stormwater fees, creativity may be the underlying factor in all stormwater fee successes stories. Camden city is one of the most financially distressed communities in the United States, so the CCMUA took a unique approach to stormwater fees for its Camden city residents. CCMUA is a regional utility servicing 36 mostly affluent suburban communities, as well as Camden city. CCMUA’s wastewater treatment plant is located in Camden city while many of the 36 suburban communities are miles away. CCMUA uses variable water rates, with local residents receiving a 40% discount on the rationale that those residents shouldn’t have to shoulder the same water conveyance costs as their suburban neighbors. As Andy Kricun put it, “Your zip code should not determine the kind of services and quality of life you need.” And in Toledo, Alicia Smith and her team knew that all the new green infrastructure would require maintenance, so they asked for additional an 15% in funding from the EPA to pay young people to maintain the projects and turn maintenance into an educational experience. In addition, adults in the community pulled together, with each person contributing five dollars to pay young people to maintain the new green spaces. These types of solutions aren’t typical. They are creative, but most importantly, they get the job done.

Even though the panel recognized that the local level can’t solve stormwater fee issue alone and that there is a significant need for more federal funding, with the creative, holistic and long term thinking demonstrated by the panelists, solutions are clearly possible. Alicia Smith said it well, “Its all about how you connect the dots. It’s one thing to sit and to talk about it.  It’s something different to make solutions.  There are solutions even in the midst of crisis.”