Is stormwater a “problem” for Maine municipalities? Yes, it is.
Precipitation that runs off our parking lots, sidewalks and rooftops (aka stormwater from developed land) picks up urban residue and carries it to lakes and streams. It makes flooding worse, which damages roads, culverts and sometimes even homes. It warms streams that would otherwise support cold-water fisheries. It erodes stream banks and carries sediment that destroys habitat. Runoff causes the always annoying potholes that damage cars.
However, we now know how to design development to soak in runoff. This “low-impact development” is increasingly being used in the United States, but there is little incentive for local engineers, developers or regulators to change the way they currently pave everything. The incentive that is needed: a stormwater utility in your community.
There are thousands of stormwater utilities nationally, but only a half dozen in all of New England. This suggests that there is a big opportunity here if we can implement what the rest of the country already knows works.
In New England, most municipalities include the costs of stormwater management as part of the property tax. This is unfair because not every property generates stormwater, nor do all properties pay property tax. Similar to a water utility that charges a fee based on metered water use, a stormwater utility charges a fee based on the stormwater that flows off a property into the town collection system. In other words, the fee is based on nonporous developed areas that generate stormwater.
A stormwater utility is inherently fair in charging those who contribute to the problem. Such a utility also provides incentive to property owners and developers to let water soak into the ground. If stormwater doesn’t run off your property, your fee is reduced.
Even better, with a utility in place to pay for the costs of stormwater management, municipalities can remove these costs from their property tax rate. The cost of stormwater is then borne by all developed properties, including those that are property-tax exempt, such as post offices, universities and military bases.
Spreading the cost of stormwater management over the entire developed landscape rather than restricting the costs to tax paying properties lowers the per acre cost to all properties.
Finally, imagine that you are a director of Public Works for Anytown, Maine. You have to fix potholes, rusted undersized culverts and flood-damaged roads. You present a stormwater budget to your town leaders each year, and each year it gets reduced because the leaders don’t want to raise taxes. You can’t make repairs to storm-damaged infrastructure, and you can’t plan long-term to deal cost-effectively with emerging problems.
However, when the town establishes a stormwater utility, you know what your budget will be next year and the year after because the costs aren’t dependent on the tax rate. Cost-effective, long-term maintenance planning becomes possible thanks to your stormwater utility, and the cost isn’t built into your taxes.
Stormwater utilities are the wave of the future for fairly and adequately funding municipal infrastructure in cash-strapped municipalities. When the advantages are understood, every municipality will want one.
Andy Sturgeon is vice president for business development at Sewall Co. in Old Town; LaMarr Clannon is project manager of MaineNon-Point Education for Municipal Officials; Steve Kahl is director of environmental and energy strategies for Sewall; Brett Hart is director of engineering for Sewall.