Stormwater is a Regional Problem – Why Don’t We Treat it Like One?

As discussed previously, ALCOSAN is constrained by law from forcing its client municipalities to reduce the volume of stormwater they are putting into the system for treatment. As a part of the final Wet Weather Plan to meet the EPA consent decree, ALCOSAN has to collect a compliance plan from each of its 83 municipal clients and integrate these plans into the larger strategy. However, there are few standards for what these plans must include and how they must approach solving the problem. Integrating 83 different plans into one larger strategy will be herculean task and it’s just a crazy way of trying to solve this problem.

Allegheny County’s fractionalized government is at the root of many of our region’s problems – from crushing pension costs to a chronically underfunded transit system – but the challenges of working within such an unwieldy system can be clearly seen in the stormwater management problem. Stormwater doesn’t respect municipal boundaries. Runoff from Robinson doesn’t stop when it reaches the border with Carnegie. Runoff from Ross doesn’t stop when it reaches the northern neighborhoods of the city. Yet we approach our stormwater planning as if these realities don’t exist. There is little integration and coordination between municipalities and the results are seen every time it rains. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Other regions across the country have taken steps to reduce this complexity and implement regional, watershed-based planning initiatives that respect the natural realities of stormwater flows and set basic standards for how to deal with them. One mechanism – though not the only one – is called a stormwater utility. A stormwater utility is a governmental entity – usually an independent authority or a branch of the municipal water system – that levies a fee on property owners, from owners of single family homes to owners of large retail or industrial facilities, for how much excess stormwater enters the system from their property. In effect, a stormwater utility puts a price on runoff. One of the benefits of a stormwater utility is that a cost that was previously invisible – stormwater runoff – is brought out into the open and property owners are held accountable for their impact on the overall system. We’re all already paying for stormwater in our water and sewer bills, but in a stormwater utility system the property owners that are contributing most to the problem pay the most and those that are taking steps to reduce their impact pay less or even get credits for the improvements they make. Thus, a tangible financial incentive for improving stormwater management is created.

A stormwater utility is one of the best ways to begin solving the problem, however there are a variety of other measures that could be taken to allow Allegheny County to forge partnerships and set standards across municipal lines. The creation of a zoning overlay district for stormwater management is one possibility. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania already has several zoning overlays in place. The Wind Energy Zoning Overlay and Coastal Erosion Zoning Overlay are two examples. These mechanisms create a set of basic standards for development and planning that cross municipal lines. Unlike Act 13, which sought to nullify local zoning rights in favor of blanket rules for natural gas drilling, these other zoning overlays retain local control and decision-making but put in place some basic, agreed-upon standards. They are strong enough to ensure that common goals are met but flexible enough to allow for local needs. Allegheny County and municipal officials could work with our partners in the state legislature to create such a mechanism to reduce the volume of water entering the ALCOSAN system, relieve the pressure on our sewers, and create incentives for the implementation of green infrastructure.

3 Rivers Wet Weather, an advocacy organization funded in part by the Allegheny County Health Department and ALCOSAN, has been pursuing these kinds of regional and watershed-based solutions for years. They offer municipalities tools and resources to better manage their stormwater while pushing for more coordination and cooperation. We need more groups like 3 Rivers Wet Weather and committed local leaders to step up and make these solutions a reality.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 24th, 2012 at 4:45 pm and is filed under Reforming the Investment of Public Dollars. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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