Sediment washes into Lick Run tributary during airport RPZ clearing.
What gets citizens more riled than paying taxes? Paying more taxes disguised as fees. There was no uprising when the two-cent two-year meals tax was implemented for the schools. How Roanoke citizens will react to a $3 monthly fee for replacing stormwater infrastructure and cleaning up waterways is another story.
It’s time to pay the piper for our dirty water or face the consequences by way of fines that could cost the city upward of $1 million. At Tuesday’s 2:00 p.m. city council meeting Mayor Bowers said “the cliff is looming” and we can’t afford to kick the can down the road any longer. The city is taking advantage of a one year reprieve and is now looking at July 1, 2014 to comply with new regulations.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates are “trickling down” to Virginia’s Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) and to localities and ultimately the taxpayer.
This isn’t a sudden revelation that the city’s stormwater infrastructure is decaying. The mandate to clean up rivers and streams has been a long time coming. “It’s complicated,” said Roanoke City’s engineer Phil Shermer Friday in a phone call. “This wave is on the horizon,” he said.
In July of 2009 it was suggested that a fund be set up to accumulate the $60 million dollars to correct Roanoke’s decaying drainage infrastructure. Shermer said at the time there would be consequences if the City didn’t implement a stormwater quality improvement strategy.
In spite of the warning no action was taken as City Council decided that in the middle of a recession citizens and businesses could not be further stressed with a storm water utility fee.
In July 2011 another warning from Chris Blakeman, Roanoke City’s Environmental Manager and Phil Shermer.
They explained that since 2003 localities under a population of 100,000 must comply with a state-issued Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permit. An MSR4 permit requires that the city assess and control all pollution sources and perform bi-annual “first flush” sampling of city-owned property.
The degradation of water quality comes from “everyday human living – from litter, fertilizer, oil, pesticides, soil erosion, air and heavy metal,” explained Blakeman. Once Roanoke hits over 100,000 in population even stricter controls come into play. People need to know “this is the new normal.”
All sources of water from the Roanoke River Watershed are assigned a percentage of the Waste Load Allocation (WLA). Roanoke has seven percent of that load as part of the upper basin of the Roanoke River Watershed encompassing 500 square miles.
Roanoke has thirteen major watersheds in the city and thirteen 100-year floodplains. Each watershed has a stream associated with it. Seven of these are impaired according to the DEQ. They include the Roanoke River, Lick Run, Peters Creek, Tinker Creek and Trout Run according to Shermer.
Impairment is a measure of sediment load and bacteria like E. coli, copper, zinc and arsenic. “If you take care of sediment you take care of all the other things,” said Shermer. Sediment comes from development sites and impervious surfaces like parking lots. Getting rid of the sediment before it hits the drains is key. The goal is to get the streams off the impaired list he said.
Roanoke is over its allowable sediment limit by 483 tons and needs to go on a “pollution diet.” That diet comes with cost in personal, ongoing maintenance, administration of permits, equipment and supplies. There is no funding source for the anticipated annual cost of over $1 million. That doesn’t include capital costs.
Shermer said, “The beauty of the storm water utility fee is that it is proportional to the runoff contribution that each property makes.”
On Tuesday City Council heard an option for a $3 monthly fee for residences and a $3 per 1920 square feet of impervious surface area (buildings and parking lots) for everyone else. Several large commercial landowners and businesses have already formed a group to monitor the issue / decision in Roanoke. Representatives made the point that, ”any new tax disguised as a fee would have to be passed on to consumers and tenants and would greatly impact economic development potential in Roanoke.”
Councilman Sherman Lea said not to lose sight of the cost. “Be careful in saying what might not be a lot [of money]” He said it was important to look at a tiered residential approach. Lea expected to hear citizens say “Why am I paying $3 a month while the guy with the mansion pays $3.” Vice Mayor Court Rosen and Councilman Dave Trinkle favored a flat $36 yearly fee for every resident. The fee will be tacked on to citizens real estate bill.
City Council concluded that they would not kick the can down the road this time. The City Manager was directed by council to put a cohesive plan together that would include a tiered fee approach based on residential home value, a phasing in of fees for businesses and non-profits, credits for both residential and businesses who perform a measurable degree of storm water management, regional cooperation and public education programs. Morrill said, “We (as a locality) are going to have to be the ones to step out first.”
Even the Roanoke airport that claims the largest impervious surface area in Roanoke won’t be immune. The combined fees would amount to $4.1 million annually. The fund would accumulate $60 million over 10 years. VDOT is matching some funding for projects and Shermer hoped that would continue. Other localities like Alexandria and Fairfax counties have implemented a real estate tax. Richmond has taken a tiered fee approach.
Virginia’s DEQ assesses the streams and the Virginia Department of Recreation and Conservation enforces the regulations. The Roanoke Valley’s unique geographical features create a “funnel effect.” Water from the Roanoke River flows to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.
On the plus side Roanoke has separate stormwater and sewer systems, though there are still septic tanks and open ditches and culverts in the city. Another plus might be that new businesses will be created to perform pollution testing for area businesses.
The intent of stormwater management is to address the two and ten-year floods. The 1985 type 100-year events are not controllable.
There are thousands of inlets and pipes in the city that need to be looked at every six months. Pipes are needed where there are none and in 2011 Shermer said there were 367 existing pipes that discharge into a stream or river. Every pipe will be regulated for pollutant load.
There are over 200 stormwater projects Valleywide and resources simply aren’t available for all of it and ” you just can’t build your way out of it … this is a program that never ends,” said Morrill.
Public outreach, engagement, compliance tracking and fee collection are some of the added overhead costs that will result in staff being increased substantially. “Serious resources are needed,” said Shermer.
“If you look at the larger purpose of what we are trying to do. That’s to improve water quality and to get it so our streams and rivers are in good ecological condition so we can enjoy them as a resource and we don’t have to worry when swimming in it or eating the fish out of it . . . Though it looks clean it really is not,” said Shermer.