Friday, March 4, 2011

Richmond Creates Stormwater Fee Credits for Residential Citizen

Beginning this year, the City of Richmond will make stormwater fee credits available to residential citizens after limiting it to commercial property owners in 2010. The fees, which go toward cleaning up the James River and local streams and creeks, amount to about $8 million and are reserved exclusively for treating stormwater issues.

Chris Beschler, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Richmond Department of Public Utilities, said the credits are easy to obtain.

“You have to either reduce the quantity of run off from your property, and, if you do things that will reduce the quantity, then you can get a credit, if you do something to reduce the quality of the run off, that gets you a credit as well.”

Reducing quantity and quality are both easily achieved at a fairly low cost. Rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, vegetation strips, or any steps made to reduce impervious surfaces, or surfaces that don’t allow easy water absorption, are a few of the ways to gain the credit.

The stormwater fees, collected twice a year from property owners, are part of a federally mandated program to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Ravaged by high nutrient and sediment pollution from agriculture, city streets and residential homes, the Bay’s ecosystem must be maintained according to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act of 1972. Original deadlines for Bay clean up have been all but ignored since the Act’s passing, but stormwater fees are part of a growing aggressive approach to the problem.

Beschler said the pollution targeted by stormwater fees is often misunderstood by the public. “When we think of pollution,” Beschler said, “it conjures up images of tires and cans and bottles floating in the bay, but the kind of pollution we're talking about is nutrient pollution, soil and sedimentation.”

Fees are distributed based on total area of impermeable surfaces on a property. Examples of those surfaces include concrete, compacted gravel driveways and rooftops.

Around $9 million is expected to flow into the city from both residential and non-residential fees, which the city began collecting last year. DPU expects to pay out about $1 million in credits, leaving $8 million to be used on specific projects in the city.

Beschler described the city-funded stormwater projects in three groups. The first handles cleaning water catch basins, mosquito control projects and basic infrastructure maintenance. The second covers federal compliance issues, including installing new water retention basins. The last group deals with the city replacing or installing infrastructure when and where it is needed.

After filling out the credit application and taking a picture of the efforts a citizen has made, hydraulic engineers, employed by the city, will inspect properties. The credit lasts for three years, and the city has the right to inspect the property at any time during the term to make sure property owners are in compliance.

But Beschler said some citizens have already taken steps to be eco-friendly. One such eco-warrior is Charlie Field, a civil engineer living in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood.

Field installed an underground cistern that collects rainwater from his roof, as well as his neighbor’s. The water flows into a containment tank below 2 lots behind his house. He uses the stored water support his urban garden.

“If you want grow a garden on a vacant lot, you can either put in a cistern [for] $1,500 to $2,000.” Field said. “Or pay the city $5,000 and plumbers another $4,000. So it was just economic. If I want a garden, I need water.”

While Field's story might be a bit extreme he said he was glad to be doing his part to help the environment.

“Every gallon we keep out of the storm system, is a gallon we don't have to store or treat, and all of that is taxpayer money. So it makes good sense to keep every drop.”

Field didn’t take great issue with the fee, which doesn’t amount to much--between $2 and $6 a month depending on property size--but Field saw its importance nonetheless.

“It takes money to run a city, and there are plenty of parts of this city where the culverts are 100-years-old and caved in and filled with mud. Somebody's got to maintain them. And also, the river is a real asset. And when you are potentially going to die when you go in it, it makes it less of an asset, you know?”

Some citizens have not been as accepting of the fees. Past city council meetings have shown some non-residential fees in the thousands, as was the case with Branch's Baptist Church in Richmond's Southside, which received a bill for over $6,000 last Fall according to the Times-Dispatch. City Council President Kathy Graziano said it was a realistic problem that needed to be addressed. Graziano spoke at a south side public meeting to discuss the stormwater fees and credits program.

“First of all we have all these federal mandates that we have to clean up the water, second of all… we were funding the stormwater out of our general fund, which was totally inadequate to address the problems we have, so for years we hadn't done it. Whether we have federal mandates or not we have not addressed this stormwater management problems in the city and we need to do it.”

Making the public aware of the credits has been a large part of DPU and the city’s efforts since the implementation of the program. Flyers, city council meetings and newsletters have been part of the approach. Graziano admits the fees are low for residential properties, but if more citizens acted on the credits, it could make a big difference.

“It’s not even the money; it’s if you contain that water it makes less run off in the creeks and in the river and it makes cleaner creeks and cleaner rivers.”

A lot of federal pressure came from lawsuits by environmental groups against Virginia and other Bay state’s neglect of the Clean Water Act. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been one of the most vocal advocates for the Bay and its upkeep. CBF Scientist Mike Gerel said he was glad to see Richmond take the steps it has.

“It gives credit for good things they're doing on their property and they don't have to pay the fee. It gets action out there on individual sites rather than giving the money to the city were they have to do anything.”

Gerel said the positive outcome would be a great step in the direction of not only a cleaner Bay, but also a cleaner Richmond.

“It’s not only going to benefit your downtown areas; your big problems where there is flooding in the city. It'll benefit your neighborhood by having those credits go right into your yard.”

Applications for credits, specific details of credit earning actions and restrictions to the program are available on the Richmond DPU website. Applications are accepted throughout the year. Only property owners are allowed to apply for the program, though renters are encouraged to speak with their landlord about the steps they can take.

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