Absorb Your Stormwater and Retain Your Money

April 27, 2012
Capitalize on incentives for managing stormwater on-site — or pay a price.

Revised fee structures may create significantly steeper stormwater fees unless you implement stormwater management practices (SMPs).

Stormwater fees were initally based on potable water usage measured by the meter. Now, more than 400 cities and utility districts nationwide utilize parcel-based stormwater billing practices based on a property’s impervious area. For some, the fee could potentially increase hundreds or thousands of dollars annually.

“The impact on schools, hospitals, stores – anywhere with large parking lots – could be enormous,” says Russ Horner, president of Water Management Inc., a designer of water efficiency programs.

In Milwaukee, for example, a parcel-based billing program was introduced in 2006 at $6 per 1,610 square-foot unit per quarter and is now $14.40. There, a General Mills plant was paying $12,000 annually and an O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store paid $30,000 – until they took a proactive approach to managing stormwater.

“Now is a good time to start looking at cost-effective ways to offset those fees,” says Ryan Wilson, stormwater program manager for the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), a self-labeled “think-and-do tank” in Chicago dedicated to sustainability issues.

Types of SMPs
Stormwater capture is typically funded through either property taxation or utility fees, says Horner.

“Big government taxes put money in a general fund and try to come up with solutions, which is fine, but this doesn’t incentivize anybody to do something on their own,” says Horner.

New fee structures are designed to encourage building owners to manage stormwater on-site and thus earn credits or discounts that reduce their fees.

“Fee structures are usually put in place because there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be maintained,” says Gary Belan, director of the Clean Water Program at American Rivers, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping American waterways clean. “The point of the fee is to incentivize people to minimize the impact they have on infrastructure.”

The most common SMPs include green roofs, porous pavements, and bioretention practices such as raingardens and swales.

The General Mills plant in Milwaukee implemented porous pavement to capture runoff from the 2-acre area, resulting in an annual savings of $3,000. The O’Reilly’s Auto Parts location installed bioswales – retention areas consisting of trough-like depressions filled with vegetation – around the entire 10-acre parking lot and reduced its yearly fees by about $14,500.

The projects were completed with the aid of American Rivers, which helped install and find funding for the systems.

How to Implement Them
The first step is contacting an engineer, surveyor, or landscape architect to determine the best project for the specific site, says Horner. Porous pavement and cisterns may be the only options for a site that doesn’t have area for landscaping.

A number of tools and resources related to the cost efficiency of a program and how to fund it are available. One of these is CNT’s Green Values National Stormwater Management Calculator.

“For savvy building owners looking at their pocketbook and long-term cost of ownership, the calculator is a good place to start your research,” Wilson says. “It provides percent reductions in stormwater and also potential cost savings.”

American Rivers can help find grants to assist with upfront costs, says Belan, adding that it covered $85,000 of the General Mills job.

As building owners look at increasing fees, it’s important to stay calm, he adds.

“Don’t panic. The fee comes as a bit of a shock, and there’s a knee-jerk reaction to these types of things,” Belan says. “But given the way infrastructure is crumbling, municipalities need additional resources.”

Instead, think of the situation as a net-plus as opposed to another obstacle, he advises.

“Keep an open mind, and be flexible when it comes to different methods,” Belan adds. “Work with your local municipality or whoever implements the fee because they have recommendations and suggestions. If they’re implementing the fee in the first place, they just want to keep the water out of their system, so they’ll be more than happy to work with you to reduce it.”

Chris Curtland ([email protected]) is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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