Managing our urban runoff

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: May 20 2012 | 12:01 am - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 7:21 pm in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Whether you own a two-bedroom bungalow or a big-box mega store, you pay $4.56 per month to the city of Cedar Rapids for handling the stormwater that flows off your property. Deluge or dribble, the bill is the same.

That could change, if an ongoing process aimed at altering the fee structure ever trickles its way to the City Council later this year. So far, much of the discussion has been below the surface, but it could make a much bigger public splash if city officials eventually move definitively toward higher fees for commercial properties.

Public works officials are considering a new fee structure that could charge commercial properties a fee based on the amount of impervious surface present on the property. Basically, the more concrete, asphalt or roofing surface that doesn’t allow rainfall to soak in, the more an owner would pay per month.

Nothing has been set in concrete. Other possible fee structures, including a system of tiered flat fees based on the size of a property, are still on the table. It’s possible any change would be phased in over time. So far, the City Council’s Infrastructure Committee has been gathering information and a public meeting on the issue is planned for next month.

‘What’s the benefit?’

“In essence, this will impact a lot of property owners,” City Council member Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor, said at a committee meeting this past week. “I think we need to very carefully consider the impact of that.

“People are going to ask, what’s the benefit?” Olson said.

The benefit would be additional resources for the city’s stormwater utility, providing dollars for everything from needed construction and repair projects to more frequent mowing of detention basins and street sweeping. Basically, the user fee would be more reflective of the true costs of properly maintaining the city’s stormwater system, which includes 458 miles of storm sewer and 20,000 structures. And few residents or businesses want to see increased property taxes.

Charging higher fees also would provide an opportunity for the city to use credits or subsidies to reward property owners who take steps to reduce runoff flowing into the system, and prompt developers to make runoff reduction measures part of their plans for new construction.

There will likely be pressure on the City Council to shelve the issue, but there are critical reasons the city should tackle it head on.

It’s an element of flood mitigation, which is clearly an issue of deep concern for Cedar Rapids. Reducing the amount of water rushing through stormwater systems and into waterways can have a significant impact on the severity of flooding, erosion and damage to stream channels, which also leads to increased sediment levels.

And it’s an issue of water quality, which should concern all of us. “There’s a common misperception that what goes down the storm sewer goes to the wastewater treatment plant and is treated and released. When, in fact, for most part, it is discharged directly to local streams,” said Pat Sauer, who leads the Iowa Stormwater Education Program.

Impervious surfaces

Dubuque has had a stormwater fee structure based on impervious surface areas since July 2003. The city determined that the average residential property in Dubuque has 2,917 square feet of impervious surface area. That average is called an Equivalent Residential Unit, or ERU. Each residence pays $5.60 per month, or one ERU.

If a commercial property has, for example, 29,170 square feet of impermeable surface, it would pay 10 ERUs, or $56 per month. The city provides credits for measures that reduce runoff and provides a 50-percent rate subsidy to property tax-exempt institutions, such as churches and schools.

“There’s a direct correlation to the amount of runoff and the amount of area that’s impervious. There’s also a direct correlation between pollution that’s associated with runoff and how much of the area is impervious,” said Deron Muehring, a civil engineer who handles water resource issues for the city of Dubuque.

Muehring said the fee structure hasn’t sparked much controversy, but it has prompted developers to consider runoff.

“They’re thinking about it now. That they’re generating this runoff on their property that someone has to manage. It is a cost the community has to deal with. It makes them look at innovative ways to try and reduce that footprint, reduce that runoff,” he said.

But he concedes it’s had a bigger impact on some businesses.

“It seems to affect the smaller businesses more than the bigger businesses. Their budgets are a little tighter than the big ones,” Muehring said.

New fees in Marion

Business opposition prompted the city of Marion to modify its original plans for an impervious-surface-based fee structure.

The city council sliced its original plan to charge businesses $3 per ERU down to $1.55 per ERU. The original proposal to charge residences $4 monthly increased to $4.80.

Under the revised proposal, City Engineer Dan Whitlow said a majority of the city’s 873 commercial properties would be charged $10 or less monthly, while 25 would pay more than $100.

Marion is considering new fees so it has the resources needed to keep up with federal water quality regulations. The proposal would raise $931,000 annually, compared to $515,000 collected by the current flat $3.50 monthly fee.

“There are a lot more regulations coming down,” said Dan Whitlow, city engineer in Marion. “We are trying to address that. It’s just going to get worse.”

The revised ordinance could be approved at the City Council’s June 21 meeting. But the measure puts off its implementation until Cedar Rapids’ establishes its fee structure. Cedar Rapids’ council won’t take up the issue until this fall.

Seeing benefits

Local business owners will be watching and weighing in.

John Barron, owner of Barron Motor Supply in Cedar Rapids, understands the importance of stopping runoff. Several years ago, his business installed a large runoff-absorbing “water garden” at the request of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The DNR hoped to stop runoff from Barron’s roof from reaching the nearby McLoud Run urban trout stream.

“When it’s raining, it fills up and it stays in there,” Barron said of the garden. “And then it goes in the ground like it’s supposed to instead of running into the trout stream.”

And he can see the potential benefits of encouraging his neighbors to take similar steps to lessen runoff.

“They just all dump it down the road. Now if they had the same type of set up, it would help. It slows ours down,” Barron said.

His business has 15 locations, including one in Dubuque, so he’s familiar with that city’s fee structure. But he hadn’t heard Cedar Rapids is considering a change. And although he understands the benefits, he’s skeptical of the need.

“I’m not gung-ho on paying extra fees for just runoff water,” Barron said.

And that’s basically the city’s challenge — explaining the seriousness of the issues involved and the potential benefits. It will be a difficult task, and it will no doubt be tempting for the City Council to bail out.

But if the elected leaders of a city scarred by flooding can’t get serious about significantly changing the way it handles and manages runoff, who can?

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