The Board of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) could vote as soon as the end of this week on whether to create a stormwater utility within its service territory.  Through the imposition of a fee on homeowner’s and businesses the District would hope to tackle some of the region’s major stormwater issues. 

In my post on Monday I discussed some of the local battles that have emerged over whether the District has the legal authority to move forward with its proposal.  In today’s post, I discuss some of the other issues and opportunities that may have gone unnoticed due to the contentious debate that is occurring.

Pro’s and Con’s of Regional Solution to Stormwater

At its core, the idea of treating stormwater as a regional issue makes sense.  Water does not know any boundaries.  Prioritizing the largest stormwater issues within the area also makes sense.  Some projects would be just too costly to do without aggregating resources.

However, this has to be balanced with making sure certain areas don’t receive the lion share of  revenue collected by the Utility.  This is the concern of Summit County who fears revenue will be almost entirely be used to fund projects in Cuyahoga County.

The proposed regulations, especially upon revision, attempt to address this issue by establishing Watershed Advisory Committees.  These Committees would be made up of key local stakeholders in each watershed.  They would provide input into project selection and identification of stormwater issues.

However, even with recent language changes in response to comments, the Committee’s are purely advisory.  The District retains the ability to ultimately make all decisions regarding use of the funds it collects.  There must be ways to balance the structure and use of the Committees to provide additional local control over resources.

Impact on Local Stormwater Ordinances Governing Storm Water

In Chapter 6 of the proposed regulations, NEORSD has the authority to establish its own standards for stormwater management.  Those standards must be consistent with Ohio EPA requirements for municipal stormwater systems. However, the District has the authority to impose more stringent requirements than Ohio EPA.  This may set up an interesting battle over ordinances passed by local municipalities within the District’s jurisdiction.

The best example of where a potential battle may take place is riparian set back requirements.  Riparian setbacks establish "no build" zones adjacent to streams and wetlands in order to maintain their natural ability to control stormwater and filter run-off. 

Right now riparian setbacks are one option a municipality can choose to implement in meeting Ohio EPA’s requirements for municipal stormwater systems.  This option has proved controversial.  Contentious debate has take place, including over the following issues:

  • Size of the Setbacks–  Standards range from 25 feet to 300 feet. This is a very wide range and Ohio EPA has not formally endorsed a specific distance. 
  • Takings- Issues have raised by property owners that the government imposing no-build areas on their property amounts to a "takings" under the Constitution which would entitle them to compensation
  • Variances- What is the process for granting a variance from the set back requirements?  Communities have utilized very different processes in determining whether to grant a variance

Right now municipalities have had the flexibility to determine these and other issues associated with riparian set back on their own.  They can craft their ordinances to deal with local concerns of their constituents. While this has led to variations in standards, some would argue variation may be suitable based upon local conditions.

What if the Sewer District decides riparian set backs are mandatory and imposes certain standards on all communities related to the setbacks?  For example, what if they impose a mandatory 50 to 100 foot setback from all streams and wetlands?  This may lead to significant debate and outcry.

Cost of the Program- Opportunities to Offset CSO Compliance Costs Should Be Explored

One of the other major concerns with the proposal is the imposition of a new fee (tax) during these tough economic times.  Certainly it is a legitimate concern to worry about imposing new costs on businesses after the worst recession in decades. 

However, it is possible the stormwater utility could save money.  The Sewer District is still in a battle with U.S. EPA over its combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  The ultimate fix to those problems runs into the billions of dollars over the next few decades.  This translates into ever escalating sewer rates to pay for those improvements.

It is possible to offset some of the costs through the stormwater utility?  There are opportunities, such as the use of "green infrastructure" to reduce infiltration of stormwater into the Sewer District’s system.  Reducing infiltration diminishes the need for costly "grey" infrastructure to hold stormwater to prevent overflows.

The Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District faced years of litigation with U.S. EPA over its CSOs.  Ultimately a very costly judicial order was agreed to satisfy the federal agency.  However, built into that Order were unprecedented flexibility to explore the use of  "green infrastructure" instead of constructing deep tunnels to hold stormwater.  Here is an excerpt from a report recently submitted to U.S. EPA regarding viability of green infrastructure to solve CSO issues (Note: while it says for settlement purpose this document is available on the web):

All of the parties clearly desire significant improvement to water quality currently impacted by MSD’s CSOs and SSOs. If cost were no object, this could be done by conventional, so-called "grey" methods, such as massive deep storage tunnels. However, as discussed openly among the parties, MSD’s service area faces huge economic problems due to its increased urbanization, population and industry losses, and related matters. MSD maintains that the sewer rate increases required through construction of massive "grey" solutions would be economically and socially devastating. This problem has the potential to create a stalemate or gridlock in finalizing the WWIP. It also presents a lose-lose situation where neither side obtains what it wants or needs. As recognized by USEPA, green infrastructure has the potential to provide water quality improvements at a fraction of the cost of "grey" infrastructure projects.–  Cincinnati MSD "Green Infrastructure" Program

Sounds very similar to the issues facing our Region.  Perhaps there is a real opportunity to see if the stormwater utility could be used as a means to reduce the District’s compliance costs to solve its CSO problems. 

Has the District even studied or discussed whether a "green infrastructure" program implemented by the proposed utility could be a cost saver versus another tax imposed on businesses and residents?