Stormwater utilities proving invaluable for flood protection, habitat enhancements and regulatory compliance

Elie G. Araj, P.E.
Senior Vice President
Berryman & Henigar, Inc.
Tampa, Florida

The stormwater utility is providing communities nationwide with the ability to implement stormwater projects that can assist in flood protection, water quality improvements, pollutants load reductions, and habitat enhancements.

Whether set up as a "user fee," "ad valorem," or "non-ad valorem," in most states a stormwater utility provides the necessary seed money or matching funds for the receipt of state and federal funding that helps communities manage and implement stormwater projects.

Stormwater runoff is still a major source of pollution for many cities and counties nationwide. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program, for example, estimates that about 45 percent of nitrogen loading to Tampa Bay is attributed to stormwater runoff. The Sarasota Bay Estuary, an important breeding area for fish and crustaceans, often receives unhealthy amounts of freshwater after intense rainfall.

Urbanization has also replaced many wetlands, which aid in groundwater discharge and act as natural filters for the uptake of pollutants, with impervious areas resulting in more runoff. In addition to acting as a carrier of pollutants, stormwater runoff, by itself, can prove to be harmful to certain ecosystems if not properly managed.

Given those realities, the increased complexity and permitting requirements often result in escalating project costs and protracted schedules. Cities and counties are faced with the task of either finding the needed appropriations to fund these projects or otherwise shelve them. Without a dedicated funding source, such projects have to compete with other priorities for General Revenue funds, Municipal Service Taxing Units (MSTU) funds, sales tax and other municipal revenue sources.

The solution for many of these communities is the stormwater utility, an effective funding source for stormwater management.

Hillsborough County, FL is one example. Future revenue from the stormwater utility was bonded over a five-year period, providing the county with about $100 million to plan, design, permit, acquire land, and construct hundreds of stormwater projects. The county also uses stormwater utility funds to implement its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program and to complete comprehensive watershed management studies for all of its major basins—covering in excess of 1,000 square miles.

The county's watershed management plans address flood control, water quality, habitat enhancement, and water supply. Such initiatives have allowed the county to receive millions of dollars in additional state and federal funds and help enhance habitat values and water quality in the Tampa Bay Estuary.

In addition to the NPDES program, cities and counties are also closely examining their stormwater management systems because of the pending implementation of Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for impaired water bodies by the EPA and state environmental agencies.

The TMDL program aims at improving the water quality and health of impaired water bodies. By estimating the assimilation capacity of a water body, regulatory agencies will set maximum allowable amounts for the discharge of certain pollutants into that water body. In many instances, those discharges originate in publicly-owned stormwater systems.

The City of Cape Canaveral, FL is also implementing what will soon be an effective stormwater utility program. The stormwater utility, expected to be in place by Spring 2003, will concentrate on water quality enhancements and the protection of the Banana River Lagoon—a 156-mile estuary that is part of the Indian River Lagoon. The Banana River has been on the EPA 303(d) list of impaired water bodies and is likely to have a TMDL established by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

The stormwater utility will provide the necessary funding to allow the city to implement its stormwater master plan, resulting in a projected annual reduction of pollutants to the river of about 2,700 pounds of nitrogen and 42 tons of suspended solids.

Not surprisingly, the formation of stormwater utilities is often directly related to the weather. Historically, dry weather patterns and the lack of stormwater-related flooding problems have translated to a diminished public interest in stormwater issues and, consequently, in funding stormwater programs. In short, the funding priorities of cities and counties shift to other pressing matters, with stormwater issues relegated to the "important but not urgent" categories.

According to the Florida Stormwater Association (FSA), 48 stormwater utilities were established in Florida between 1987-1993 compared to only 13 in the markedly drier period of 1994-1999.

Nonetheless, more and more municipalities are either introducing stormwater utilities or raising the fees for existing utilities. There are two principal reasons why stormwater utilities appear to be growing in popularity.

First, it is becoming increasingly evident that surface water runoff should be managed as part of a "holistic" strategy for water supply and recharge. With population growth and increased development, the impact on our water supply system is twofold: More water is needed to serve a growing population and increased demand, especially in the metropolitan areas. Also, more growth usually translates into urban sprawl, reducing the amount of rainfall recharge to the aquifer.

Several recent studies, including a report by American Rivers (www.amrivers.org), a non-profit organization, have documented the effects of urbanization and growth on droughts and water shortages. While the link between an increase in population and a subsequent increase in water demand has always been obvious, the link between urbanization and a decreased aquifer supply has not been apparent until recently.

Impervious areas, such as roads, buildings, and parking lots, have replaced meadows, farmland, and forested areas. This substitution channels the rainfall that used to find its way down to the aquifer, into stormwater management systems aimed at flood protection and expedited drainage to the nearest receiving water body. The new impervious area coupled with increased groundwater withdrawals (to keep up with the growing demand) have also resulted in saltwater intrusion into aquifers in many coastal areas.

Stormwater managers, as well as regulatory agencies, have shifted their focus from managing stormwater for rapid discharge off the land, to designing systems that allow for detention of the runoff, infiltration, and in some cases, direct recharge into the aquifer following some form of treatment. The stormwater utility thus serves as a dedicated funding source for designing such holistic stormwater systems and assists in protecting and preserving groundwater supplies.

The Water Quality Act of 1987 and the promulgation of NPDES regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the early 1990s have also increased public awareness on the impact of surface water discharges.

Studies, including the National Urban Runoff Program (NURP), have documented the ability of stormwater to carry a variety of pollutants from urban and agricultural activities. Such pollutants include herbicides, pesticides, heavy metals, and nutrients. Stormwater professionals, working with state and regulatory agencies, have shifted to designing stormwater management systems that provide treatment of the runoff carrying such pollutants.

In addition, the EPA, along with the Pollution Prevention (P2) roundtable and other organizations, have been advocating the elimination of pollutants at the source by encouraging citizens to be prudent in using pesticides and fertilizers, and are working with businesses to reduce by-products and waste. Many organizations have also chosen to retrofit their existing infrastructure with a wide range of options—from separating the combined stormwater and sanitary sewer discharges, to the installation of simple mechanical devices for the capture of floatables (leaves, cups, trash, etc.) and suspended solids.

The stormwater utility is a concept that will only grow in popularity over the next few years as municipalities are finding that when properly implemented, it helps provide flood protection and complies with ever-increasing environmental regulatory requirements.

Elie G. Araj, P.E., can be reached at 813-623-2230 or at araj@bhiinc.com.