Residents showed up at Whitehall Borough council meetings regularly for years to complain about the flooding. Basements flooded, cars got stuck in water several feet high and park streams turned into raging torrents that flooded shopping centers.
James Leventry, who has been the borough manager since 2000, heard the same question repeatedly:
“When are you going to do something?”
But he didn’t have any resources to deal with it.
Then the borough passed a stormwater fee. In 2015, it started collecting $8 per month from every Whitehall household.
Large property owners, like schools and golf courses, had to pay even more, depending on how much water was pouring off of their property.
Whitehall started three large stormwater mitigation projects where it was receiving the most flooding complaints.
The town added 1,000 feet of storm sewer to capture water along a stretch of Streets Run Road. It built two detention ponds at the bottom of Whitehall Country Club. The club didn’t like the idea at first, but the pond captured water pouring into homes across the street.
Whitehall also built and buried a system of larger pipes along Doverdell Drive and through residents’ yards, which pours into an underground storage tank at the end of Baldwin Manor Park. The storage tank began to capture the rain that would typically flood roads and a large shopping center. It also captures some of the water flooding over Whitehall’s borders into Saw Mill Run, one of Pittsburgh’s most notorious flooding spots.
As that project went out to bid in 2017, the flooding continued. In June 2017, a few drivers had to be rescued from their cars. Flooding poured into roads that the projects were meant to address. A Dairy Queen caught fire from weather damage to its electric. Courtney Wertz, the assistant borough manager, spent days on the phone, answering more than 100 calls.
Four years later, the last of the three projects is nearly finished. They collectively cost in excess of $4 million, which is being paid for with stormwater fees.
This past year, even amid a series of intense flash floods across the Pittsburgh area, Wertz said there were no panicked calls.
“Since these projects were implemented, the calls have pretty much disappeared,” she said. “The projects are working.”
Is Pittsburgh next?
Whitehall is among 11 communities in Allegheny County that have passed a stormwater fee after pressure from federal and state regulators to clean up their streams and from residents to do something about the flooding. More than half of the fees were passed after the heavy storms in 2018 and 2019.
“When you have people in your office crying because they have been severely hurt by flooding, you really remember that,” said Julie Jakubec, the manager of O’Hara Township, which passed the county’s most recent $8 monthly fee in September.
Now the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] is proposing its own fee. It will cost the typical Pittsburgh homeowner about $8 per month ($6 the first year), and its proceeds would pay for projects like the ones Whitehall has implemented. There are two other rate categories: Residents with more than 2,710 square feet of roof and concrete would pay twice as much; customers with fewer than 1,015 square feet would pay half as much. The fee has to be approved by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission to go into effect.
The fee has been championed by water activists for more than a decade. Brenda Smith, the executive director of UpstreamPgh, said she heard about the need for a dedicated funding stream during her first week on the job in 2008.
“Everyone at the table said the most important thing we need in the region is a fee,” she said. “For 13 years, I’ve been going to meetings where people say we absolutely need that fee.”
But increased taxes and fees are frequently unpopular, especially when they are new and not widely understood. Some nonprofits in particular have objected to the fees, including school districts and churches, which don’t pay most taxes. And many owners of parking lots or vacant land parcels have never paid water bills before. Some also argue that not enough is being done to protect low-income residents as fees increase.
An inch of rainfall creates more than 27,000 gallons of water per acre that needs to be funneled somewhere. Nature, it turns out, is pretty good at managing that water, but cityscapes typically are not: 16 times more water runs off from a parking lot than a grass meadow.
In Monroeville, which passed a stormwater fee in 2018, more than 12 billion gallons of water hit the ground in an average year. More than half of those gallons aren’t absorbed.
PWSA has been designing and building stormwater projects in some of the city’s most flood-prone areas, such as in Four Mile Run and Saw Mill Run. But there are not enough projects to address all of the city’s most pressing flooding issues.
The work is funded from sewage bills. That means how much people pay is determined by how many gallons of water they use from the faucet, which has nothing to do with how much water flows off their roof and driveway. Advocates for stormwater fees say it should be based on how many gallons of rain drain off a property.
Many of the largest contributors to Pittsburgh’s stormwater problems — such as parking lots, malls and warehouses — pay little or nothing. PWSA believes there are potentially thousands of property owners who would start receiving a bill under the plan, though they currently pay nothing to manage the stormwater.
Fox Chapel Borough passed a $12.50 monthly stormwater fee last year. Borough Manager Gary Koheler said the fee is more fair.
"That gets everyone to pay it instead of just the little old lady living in a two-bedroom house,” he said.
Not impervious to fees
PWSA would use aerial photographs to identify how much pavement and roof commercial properties have and charge them the same rate as ordinary homeowners. The average home has 1,650 feet of “impervious” hard surfaces. So a building with 16,500 feet would pay 10 times as much as a residential customer.
PublicSource reached out to a number of the institutions that will face the sharpest increase in their bills because of the amount of area covered by their buildings and parking lots: UPMC, The Allegheny Health Network, Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Public Schools, the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and ALCO Parking Corporation. They either didn’t respond or declined to comment.
But PublicSource did speak to nine of the 11 municipalities in Allegheny County that are already collecting a stormwater fee.
Collectively, they have been able to implement dozens of stormwater projects and more regular maintenance that they say is reducing flooding in their communities and improving the water quality of their streams.
Tim Little, the municipal manager of Monroeville, said there hasn’t been widespread opposition to its stormwater fee, but resistance has come from two of the biggest sources of stormwater: the Gateway School District and the Monroeville Mall.
The school district is paying the roughly $92,000 fee while it appeals in court, while the mall has yet to pay the roughly $220,000 per year in fees it owes. The school district’s dispute hinges on whether the stormwater fee is more like a utility service, such as a drinking water fee that nonprofits and schools do pay, or more like a city tax that goes to pay for roads, which these entities are often exempt from. School board Vice President Valerie Warning said in an email she believes it is a tax and that’s why the district “is fighting this fee.” The mall didn’t return requests for comment.
Tim Cook, who runs the stormwater program for Findlay Township, said some residents call it a “rain tax” and that only 85% of its residents paid the fee in its first year. Part of the problem, he said, is that there aren’t as many flooding issues near many rural homes. He has to explain how they benefit from the stormwater projects on the township’s road.
No matter how much PWSA does to inform its Pittsburgh customers, they still may not actually pay attention to the purpose of the fee until it shows up on their bill, according to Scott Brilhart, the assistant manager in Moon Township. The township either had to raise taxes, cut spending or implement a fee to comply with the Clean Water Act’s requirements to clean up its streams. It chose a stormwater fee in part because every property had to pay, including nonprofits and municipal buildings.
Most of the municipalities offer some kind of discount for residents or buildings that take steps to capture stormwater on their own property, such as by building a rain garden.
Fox Chapel’s stormwater fee enabled it to buy a piece of park that it had been looking at for decades and will connect its trail system from O’Hara to Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve. The borough, where the average home has more than five times as much pavement and roof as in Pittsburgh, is planning to install ponds to capture and slowly release up to 1.3 million gallons of water on the new parkland that once served as Fred Rogers’ weekend retreat.
Jakubec, the manager of O’Hara, said her township will likely spend some of its money on projects in Fox Chapel. That’s because Fox Chapel is upstream of O’Hara and will benefit from the water that doesn’t end up downstream. “When you’re at the bottom of a creek like we are, it’s not O’Hara alone,” she said. “We have to partner with neighbors.”
In 2011, Mt. Lebanon was the first municipality to collect a fee in the county and only the second in the state. More than 96% of its residents pay the fee, and it has been able to build more than a dozen large projects over the past decade, most of which addressed major flooding problems.
Mt. Lebanon also uses fee revenue to maintain its roads and to send cameras into its sewers to look for deterioration. It has spent more than $6 million on this kind of ongoing maintenance.
In 2018, a record-setting year for rainfall in Pittsburgh, Mt. Lebanon experienced some of the region’s worst flooding. The stormwater fees won’t be able to prevent all flooding issues, said Laura Pace Lilley, the township’s public information officer. The fee would have to be prohibitively expensive to fix all the flooding problems, so it’s important to set the fee at a rate that is both affordable and effective, she said.
And the increasing amount of rainfall from climate change makes it hard to tell if flooding problems in the township have improved since it first began collecting a stormwater fee, she said.
“We’ve had these terrible storms more than we ever did,” she said.
Stormwater fee details from 12 areas in Allegheny County
Mt. Lebanon (enacted in 2011)
Monthly fee: $8.
Revenue: $1.4-$1.5 million annually.
Average house has 2,400 square feet of roof/pavement.
Discount: $50 discount for purchasing a rain barrel.
So far: More than a dozen projects.
Monthly fee: $8.
Revenue: $650,000 annually.
Average house has 2,800 square feet of roof/pavement.
So far: Three stormwater projects that cost more than $4 million to alleviate flooding in several neighborhoods.
Monthly fee: $5 ($3 for apartment).
Average house has 2,500 square feet of roof/pavement.
Monthly fee: $8.
Revenue: $370,000-$450,000 annually.
Average house has 1,883 square feet of roof/pavement.
Monthly fee: $10.
So far: Able to rebuild a road that would’ve had to close and refurbish detention ponds neglected by homeowner’s associations.
North Fayette (2018)
Monthly fee: $3.50/$5.
Revenue: $346,000 annually.
[Did not respond to requests for comment and no information is provided on its website about the fee]
Monthly fee: $3.50.
Revenue: $450,000 annually.
Average house has 4,400 square feet of roof/pavement.
So far: Renovating three detention ponds.
Monthly fee: $7.
Average house has 1,900 square feet of roof/pavement.
Monthly fee: $5.50.
Revenue: $1.3 million annually.
Average house has 3,800 square feet of roof/pavement.
So far: A storage pond and an underground tank under a soccer field at Mead Park, both out for bids.
Fox Chapel (2020)
Monthly fee: $12.50.
Revenue: $343,500 annually.
Average house has 8,400 square feet of roof/pavement.
So far: Plan to cut back streams to a more gradual slope and looking into $3.3 million in restorations at Hardie Valley Park.
Monthly fee: $8.
Revenue: $750,000-$800,000 annually.
So far: Close to construction on its first detention pond.
PWSA (Proposed for 2022)
Monthly fee: $6 increasing to $8 in 2023.
Average house has 1,650 square feet of roof/pavement.
So far: Been using funds from sewage bills to pay for projects.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Catherine Taipe.