The case for stormwater fees in the Pittsburgh region

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Tom Batroney stands along Washington Boulevard at a spot that has flooded repeatedly in recent years. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

PWSA: After the Crisis

After record-setting rainfall and flash floods in recent years, the need for action across the Pittsburgh region is clear. 

In 2018, I created the Pittsburgh Urban Flood Journal where I’ve been documenting, mapping and writing about flooding issues as they happen. The reason I’ve been doing this is to raise awareness about flood-prone areas. I hope the information I am collecting can one day lead to fixes to our flooding issues for the health and safety of our neighborhoods. As a professional civil engineer, this is my duty.

Local leaders and engineers need to develop flood mitigation strategies to better manage stormwater before it causes damage. This can be done by using larger piping capacity some places or slowing down the water using engineered rain gardens and floodplain buffer landscapes in others —  or, in many cases, some combination of both. Unfortunately, most municipalities in our region are struggling to find ways to pay for the necessary fixes, even if they have designed a solution. Like many engineers in my profession, it can sometimes feel like we have one hand tied behind our back. Stormwater fees are a critical tool, but most communities in the Pittsburgh region do not have them.   

All forms of water should have value. The planet’s water cycle and our water supply is constantly in motion, reforming, relocating and recirculating. Without much of a passing thought, we each drink, rinse, bathe (and hopefully swim this summer!) in gallons of water every day. The average adult is 55 to 60% water and will drink about 30,000 gallons of watery beverages in an 80-year lifetime. When we think about it, the human body closely mimics a walking, talking water balloon with carefully crafted calcium sticks inside. Water is our lifeblood, and all forms of water – potable, storm and waste – should be valued. 

Take for example the tap water we use to drink, cook and bathe. Once strictly the realm of the public sector, this water is so valuable there are now an increasing number of multi-billion-dollar private corporations dedicated to filtering, managing and piping water to our taps. Whether public or private, each will gladly sell us as much water as we want. Water providers know we need water and that we will gladly pay for it.  

No different is the water we use to flush our toilets. Pittsburgh’s regional sewer treatment plant operators at ALCOSAN have a 2021 annual capital and operating budget of about $250 million to ensure our sewage is treated and not freely dumped into our rivers. Over the next several decades, ALCOSAN will be investing $2 billion to reduce sewer overflows during rainstorms. For perspective, Heinz Field cost $281 million to construct.  

So, what’s left in the world of water? Stormwater. Stormwater has no assigned monetary value in most of the Pittsburgh region’s municipalities. This water falls from the sky and hits our roofs, driveways, sidewalks, parking lots, yards and roads with impunity. Someone has to catch it, divert it, slow it down, transport it and clean it. If we don’t, we end up with flooded roads, devastating landslides and dirty rivers. 

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] is taking steps to address our decades long neglect of stormwater. Recently, PWSAsubmitted a rate request to the Public Utility Commission to implement a stormwater fee. The proposed stormwater fee will create a fairer and more equitable billing system for their ratepayers. 

The record-setting rainfall and increasingly violent thunderstorms that seemingly pop up out of nowhere risk public safety, cause property damage, degrade the environment and generally impact our quality of life.  

Along Washington Boulevard, traffic flood gates and warning lights, along with heavy-duty reinforced cement poles and industrial chains around the sewer manholes and grates serve as a warning to our inaction. Many don’t know this, but the poles and chains are there to serve in part as a last resort life-saving measure: If someone were to be caught in a flood, they could reach out and grab onto the chains to prevent themselves from being sucked down into the swirling vortex of floodwaters that spill into the underground 10-foot sewer pipes. The safety of our residents along Washington Boulevard and other prominent flood-prone roads in our region are, at their heart, a stormwater management issue that will take much planning, effort and funding to solve. 

Chains that serve as last-chance life-saving devices surround stormwater drains along Washington Boulevard. (Photo by Lindsay Dill/PublicSource)

Study after study has shown that flooding disproportionately impacts low-income families and people of color. By instituting a stormwater fee based on the amount of impervious area on someone’s property, municipalities can create a fair and level playing field for doing something about costly flooding issues. Without stormwater fees, municipalities are unable to equitably collect revenue from paved parking lots serving large commercial property owners, large private driveways and concrete patios. These types of impervious surfaces generate the most stormwater on a foot-by-foot basis. How is this equitable and fair? 

The most fair and equitable means for addressing Pittsburgh's stormwater challenges is to measure the total amount of pavement and rooftop space on a given property where rainwater can’t drain. PWSA currently collects sewage revenue that can fund some stormwater projects to help keep sewage out of the rivers. But this funding is based on metered drinking water consumption and isn’t directed at flooding directly. This leaves out those responsible for much of the stormwater issue. 

When it comes to implementing flood mitigation projects, many institutions and regional leaders will praise the use of rainwater-absorbing green infrastructure design practices. However, it’s impossible to sustainably fund meaningful green infrastructure programs without a dedicated revenue stream for development and maintenance. Stormwater fees are the financial bedrock for the most progressive green infrastructure programs in the nation, including Philadelphia’s “Green City, Clean Waters” and Lancaster’s “Save It!” programs. 

The time has come for stormwater fees throughout the greater Pittsburgh region, joining other cities across the nation. According to a 2020 survey by Western Kentucky University there are at least 1,807 cities and municipalities with stormwater fees in the United States. Many, in fact, are right here in Allegheny County in the communities of Coraopolis Borough, Dormont Borough, Findlay Township, Moon Township, Monroeville, Mt. Lebanon Township, North Fayette Township, Plum Borough, Whitehall Borough and O’Hara Township. That said, there are 130 individual municipalities in Allegheny County alone, so we have a way to go. Each year, I attend the Three Rivers Wet Weather Conference, and nearly everyone I have met there supports stormwater fees; enacting them, however, is not always politically popular.

Finally, I've listened to the counter argument from some residents against stormwater fees. Usually, it sounds something like: "Stop the rain tax! How can you tax the rain? You can't stop the rain!" In response, it’s not a tax; it’s a fee to provide critical stormwater management services for our community. Additionally, I find it curious that no one ever complains about a “tax” on drinking or treating sewage water; we cannot stop ourselves from drinking water or using the bathroom, after all.

Maybe it's because water and sewage are valued in the water cycle, but, for some reason, stormwater is not. It's all connected: Water falls from the sky; we treat and drink it; and we flush it down the toilet to treat it again. That cycle repeats itself on a never-ending basis. Every drop of water on this planet is connected. Every drop should be valued.

Tom Batroney is a professional civil engineer with the engineering consulting firm AKRF and resides in Wilkinsburg. He’s worked on numerous public and private sector water resources projects during his 15-year career in the Pittsburgh region. He can be reached at tom.batroney@gmail.com.

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