Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia on Flickr.

Water bills for DC residents and businesses may increase soon to help pay for improved stormwater infrastructure. But not everyone agrees how to pay for the infrastructure or even what kind of infrastructure to build. 

Next week DC Water’s Retail Rates Committee will meet to decide what rate increases will take effect this fall for customers whose properties have character­istics that contribute to stormwater runoff and pollution. As they do this, advocates are calling for a more equitable distribution of fees as well as discounts for low-income residents.

And as DC Water moves ahead with plans to manage stormwater runoff, it is also working to convince the Environmental Protection Agency that implementing green infrastructure would reduce the amount of runoff altogether and decrease the need for more expensive projects.

DC struggles with the causes and costs of stormwater runoff

Every time we get a torrential downpour in DC, the first thing I think about (other than why haven’t I bought good rain boots yet?) is the incredible amount of pollution that will be flowing into our rivers and stream.  This happens because of the amount of impervious surfaces in the District.

Impervious surfaces, or surfaces such as concrete, brick, and asphalt that are non-porous and do not allow rain to seep through them into the ground, make up 42% of the District’s land area. This is typical in urban settings, but it means that rather than rainwater being absorbed by a grassy yard, field, or forest floor, it flows downhill, washing all of the filth accumulated on the ground into storm drains.

To make matters worse, about one-third of DC is served by a sewer system that combines both stormwater and sewage. This system also serves customers in parts of Maryland and Virginia. The sheer volume of stormwater runoff from this large, urbanized are is much greater than our system can handle.

As a result, when heavy storms happen the system must release overflow into our waterways before it has been treated, polluting Rock Creek, the Anacostia, and Potomac Rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

There is a plan in progress to add 3 sets of massive storage tunnels to our system.  The first set, to serve the Anacostia River, is now under construction. The second two will serve the Potomac River and the Rock Creek system.

This program, called the Clean Rivers project, will cost DC Water $2.6 billion and is funded in part by the fastest growing component of your water bill: the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (IAC).  The IACs go up each year, most recently by 92%.  Another 47$ increase is proposed for October 1. 

District residents foot disproportionate share of the bill

The current fee structure put in place to address this issue disproportionately puts 93% of the burden on DC customers, with the customers in Maryland and Virginia paying only 7%.

Some might argue that these suburban jurisdictions should not have to pay into the Clean Rivers project to assist DC with the management of its own stormwater. However, there have been, and continue to be, major savings for these jurisdictions by virtue of being a part of our system, and it’s completely appropriate to re-examine this arrangement under our current circumstances.

Furthermore, IACs apply only inside squares and lots, and not to impervious areas in DC’s transportation rights of way.  Yet the fact is that 47% of the impervious surfaces in DC are roads, streets, sidewalks, and alleys. While DC residents benefit heavily from them, suburban residents, businesses, commuters, and visitors get big benefits from them as well.

Additionally, there is currently no difference in the fee structure for residential customers and commercial customers.  Commercial properties, such as office buildings, benefit disproportionately from the roads and sidewalks that employees, customers, and suppliers use to get there, and they additionally have the opportunity to disperse costs to their customers. It makes sense to have a slightly higher fee structure for them than, say, a single-family home.

Although DC Water has established a Customer Assistance Program (CAP) for low-income residential customers, that CAP does not apply to the IAC portion of the bill. Before the IACs started to increase so dramatically, bills under the CAP averaged about one-half of other residential bills.

Many of our residents in DC live on fixed incomes and would be deeply impacted by this type of increase in their water bills. In a recent letter, I urged DC Water to set a 50% discount for the IAC component of bills to CAP customers.

Reduce runoff instead of storing it

DC Water has been required by the EPA to build this new system of storage tunnels to manage stormwater runoff, and as it stands, DC customers will pay the bulk of the cost it takes to implement this new system. The desperately needed storage tunnel for the Anacostia runoff is being built and needs to be paid for.

Before construction begins on the remaining two storage tunnels, however, DC Water is hoping to persuade the EPA to re-examine the current requirements and instead allow for a plan involving the aggressive implementation of green infrastructure to reduce runoff altogether instead of storing it.

This would involve green roofs, permeable pavement and roads, and new trees and gardens. It would have the added benefit of creating jobs, improving air quality, adding green space to our communities, and creating subsidies for property owners to take individual action. That sounds a lot better to me than a couple of underground tunnels.

We can encourage the EPA to support DC Water’s proposal by writing to EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin. We also don’t have to wait to make green improvements to our properties. The District Department of the Environment offers incentives to homeowners for green property enhancements through its Riversmart Program.

Runoff reduction strategies can be implemented incrementally, improve our streets and neighborhoods, and may even be more cost effective than stormwater storage infrastructure. Check it out. I’m looking into rain barrels for my home this week. Maybe after that I’ll finally get those rain boots.

Brianne Nadeau is the Vice-Chair of the Ward 1 Democrats, and was a Commissioner on ANC1B from 2006–2010. She is an active member of her prayer community, DC Minyan, and is a board member of Jews United for Justice. By day, she is an advisor to several non-profit organizations. Brianne resides on Belmont Street and has lived in Washington, DC since 2002. She is running for DC Council in Ward 1.