Time to Tax Stormwater Runoff to Better Protect Ocean State’s Impaired Waters
December 14, 2023
About 14% of the Ocean State’s most valuable watershed is covered by streets, driveways, parking lots, and roofs. The tidal wave of polluted stormwater rushing off acres of asphalt, concrete, and shingles every time it rains or snow melts sends bacteria, nutrients, and other contaminants into the region’s signature resource. Beaches and shellfish beds are closed, toxic algae blooms, and money is lost.
Narragansett Bay’s 700 billion gallons of water cover nearly 150 square miles, and its watershed nurtures thousands of species of fauna and flora. Several estimates have suggested the total value of the natural resources of the bay’s watershed exceeds several billion dollars annually.
New England’s largest estuary, however, isn’t the only Rhode Island waterbody being stressed by stormwater runoff. Most of the state’s brooks, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs are threatened by the pollutants streaming off Rhode Island’s vast collection of impervious surfaces. (Treated lawns also send fertilizer and pesticides into waterways.)
Impervious cover in Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities ranges from 3% (Exeter and Foster) to 40% (Woonsocket). When impervious cover is between 10% and 25%, nearby streams show clear signs of degradation. More than 25% coverage? Fuhgeddaboudit. Seven municipalities have impervious cover percentages above 25. (Impervious surfaces also exacerbate flooding.)
But when such cover is less than 10%, streams support a wide range of life. Less than half (17) of the municipalities in the state feature less than 10% impervious cover. The municipal average is 12%.
The natural world — e.g., forests and wetlands — soak up stormwater, store it, and filter its pollutants. Pavement doesn’t offer those complimentary services.
Rhode Island’s list of impaired waters is long. For instance, stormwater runoff contaminates all seven Newport Water Division reservoirs on Aquidneck Island, to the point that they are all considered impaired by the state and the Environmental Protection Agency. The water that comes out of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport faucets is clean, but that comes with great cost and effort.
Late last month, state officials advised the public to avoid yet another Rhode Island waterbody — this time, Indian Lake in South Kingstown — because of another toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) bloom.
Every Rhode Island municipality is dealing with its stormwater runoff problem in both expensive and commonsense ways, but lost among the Narragansett Bay Commission’s successful combined sewer overflow project and the continuous promotion of rain gardens, rain barrels, permeable pavers, and swales is a tool that has received far less attention: stormwater utility districts, which are more equitable than continually relying on higher property taxes.
A stormwater utility district, an idea first introduced in the United States in the mid-1970s, is essentially a tax designed to generate funding for stormwater management and to discourage the overuse of asphalt and concrete.
Basically, it is to stormwater what a sewer utility is to sewage, or what a water utility is to drinking water. A stormwater utility district generates revenue through user fees that are based upon the amount of stormwater generated on a property. The revenue generated supports the maintenance and upgrade of existing storm-drain systems, flood-control measures, and water-quality programs.
Stormwater utility districts help address the climate crisis and shift the tax burden away from homeowners.
About 2,000 U.S. municipalities employee such districts, according to the EPA, but none in Rhode Island.
In 2013, seven municipalities at the head of Narragansett Bay — Central Falls, Cranston, East Providence, North Providence, Pawtucket, Providence, and Warwick — explored the idea of creating a regional stormwater utility to provide a long-term solution to stormwater management.
A year earlier, the town of Bristol published a stormwater utility district report. The 29-page document listed key rationales for establishing such a utility: 1) it isn’t as dependent on the vagaries of the annual budget process like taxes are; 2) the fee is based on a well-thought-out stormwater program to meet the needs and demands of the community; 3) it can adapt to changing program and funding needs; 4) the cost is borne by the user on the basis of demand placed on the drainage system and receiving waters.
Those who own oversized homes surrounded by lawn and pavement, big-box stores, strip malls, massive parking lots, waterfront scrapyards, and legions of real estate — to name just a few — pay more in taxes, because they generate more stormwater pollution.
“In every community there are good, even compelling, reasons to improve the way stormwater programs are executed and funded,” according to the Bristol study. “Reasons might be a popular stream that is becoming increasingly impacted, a lack of riparian park space, decaying drainage infrastructure and mounting complaints, unfunded regulatory mandates, local flooding, financial pressures, loss of fish, beach closings, a roadway or bridge collapse, or lawsuits.”
In typical Rhode Island fashion, neither effort has moved past the study stage.
The Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act of 2002 authorizes municipalities to create stormwater management districts, “to eliminate and prevent the contamination of the state’s waters and to operate and maintain existing stormwater conveyance systems.”
In 2006, the East Providence Waterfront Commission considered creating a stormwater utility. The idea evaporated.
Two years later, Narragansett considered creating a stormwater district. After the completion of an initial study, the pursuit of such a utility was postponed until a “more favorable political climate arose.” Town officials are still waiting for the climate to change.
In the meantime, as heavier rainfalls become more frequent, flooding worsens, waterbodies are burdened with ever more pollution, and the costs to address the two problems continue to increase. Public heath continues to be threatened and recreational opportunities lost.
The time is now for Rhode Island to move past the indolent held-for-further-study stage and actually create stormwater utility districts. Or, at the very least, provide tax breaks to property owners who replace asphalt, concrete, and even lawn with gardens and meadows; install rain barrels; and plant trees, but not after first cutting a clump of others down.
Note I: In Newton, Mass., homeowners pay a stormwater fee of $114 annually. All other properties pay $0.0470 per square foot of impervious surface — except if the square footage charge multiplied by the total impervious area of the parcel equals less than $150, then the annual fee is $150. The city offers abatements against this fee for residents/business owners who undertake specific actions to reduce the impact of runoff, such as rain barrels and rain gardens.
Note II: About 60% of the Narragansett Bay watershed resides in Massachusetts, but 90% of the bay’s waters are in Rhode Island.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.