2017 Legislative Session

The Public Doesn’t Care About Stormwater Management. Here’s Why You Should

On most days metro Atlanta only has one major river running through it, the Chattahoochee, which meanders its way from Lake Lanier through Roswell and down Atlanta’s west side. Even the smallest rain event, though, inundates Atlanta with hundreds of resultant streams as our roads and streets are transformed into high velocity channels of stormwater runoff. Sewer and water drainage systems, the unsung heroes of our communities, are tasked with managing this water; yet cities and counties often struggle to convince citizens that such systems are worth the investment.

StormwaterMyths

“Myths of Storm Water Management” by Georgia Tech Professor Tom Debo

Local governments assess stormwater utility fees on properties as a means of financing stormwater management. Those properties with larger areas of impermeable (non-porous) surfaces are assessed higher fees since more water and pollutants run off those properties into our sewer systems and rivers. These fees then go towards maintaining and building stormwater drainage systems. A bill in the Georgia Senate, though, would upend this system by prohibiting local governments from assessing such fees on properties that meet certain stormwater management criteria.

 Since water professionals and policy experts are heavily questioning the efficacy of the legislation it appears that either the sponsors of the bill didn’t gain enough insight into stormwater management or the bill is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a scheme to reduce fees for large property owners disguised as thoughtful policy. 

Like so many pieces of legislation, Senate Bill 116 seems reasonable at first glance. Any property that can effectively manage a 25-year, 24-hour storm event based on criteria laid out in the Georgia Stormwater Management Manual will not be assessed a stormwater fee. The idea being that because properties detain some water instead of immediately returning all of it to the system during these specific rain events they aren’t contributing to stormwater runoff and shouldn’t be assessed a fee. Perhaps the sponsors of the bill weren’t expecting people to think about the issue because once critical thought is applied, major policy flaws quickly appear.

atl-streets-alive

Atlanta Streets Live, 2014

To begin with, the bill classifies properties that meet the 25-year, 24-hour flood event criteria as “water-neutral.” Since the bill includes no purpose statement it’s unclear exactly what the term means, but it should be noted that the Georgia Stormwater Management Manual appears to be void of any such terminology. A quick Google search reveals that the term “water-neutral” is generally used to refer to properties that offset their water impact through a combination of reducing on-site water use and undertaking actions to increase supply or reduce existing water demand elsewhere in the system.

This seems to imply that the term “water-neutral” is used more in a water-consumption context and less in a stormwater management context, though detention of water could be considered one aspect of water-neutral practices. If we assume that properties certified as water-neutral would not be contributing water runoff to offsite areas beyond what they would contribute in undeveloped states, then the substance of the legislation likely fails to achieve those goals.

Senate Bill 116 has drawn criticism from professionals in the stormwater management community for a host of reasons. The Georgia Association of Water Professionals (GAWP) has gone so far as to published a plea to oppose the legislation. The fact that a property is able to manage a 25-year, 24-hour flood event does not eliminate the property’s contribution of water runoff to the water system. A property that gains “water-neutral” certification will detain water on the property during the storm event, thereby reducing the amount of water that immediately runs off into the system. However, both the water that is not detained and the water that is detained will be returned to the water system at some point. Yet the property will not be contributing any fees to the local government to manage this water.

GAWP also points out that properties possessing water detention ponds already receive 30%-50% in stormwater utility credits to offset the amount of water they are returning to the system. The reason why they don’t receive a 100% credit is because stormwater still eventually enters the surrounding system and the property continues to receive stormwater utility services from the local government.

water-detention

Retention Pond Behind Sprouts in the Morningside/Lenox neighborhood of Atlanta

SustainAtlanta spoke with Michael Elliott, Associate Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning, to get his take on the proposed bill. Elliott shared many of the concerns delineated by GAWP, further remarking that the bill may be most applicable to “large corporate developments (whether industrial or commercial) that have the resources to get their project certified as well as the on-site infrastructure to retain a 25-year rain event.” Elliott explained that this advantage could lead to equity concerns:

“The community’s stormwater infrastructure is shared by all members of the community, and this shifts costs away from larger landowners and therefore increases the burden on smaller landowners.” Voters should be aware that if the bill is passed, stormwater utility fees may increase since the share of properties contributing to stormwater management will decrease.

Noting that the bill may reduce stress to the water system by incentivizing developers to retain more stormwater, he concludes, “This could have some benefits to the system as a whole… but only for storms up to a certain size. The community would still need to deal with larger storms.”

Elliott also indicated the governance issues that would arise from the bill, as “the state has given localities the responsibility for managing stormwater and flooding, but is now restricting [their] capacity to fund such projects.”Consequently, Senate Bill 116 directly interferes with the financial structure of stormwater management for local governments.

Since water professionals and policy experts are heavily questioning the efficacy of the legislation it appears that either the sponsors of the bill didn’t gain enough insight into stormwater management or the bill is simply a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a scheme to reduce fees for large property owners disguised as thoughtful policy. 

Update March 6, 2017: SB-116 failed to reach committee and is therefore ineligible to be signed into law this legislative session

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