Cities focusing not just on water, but on its quality

A garden of purple, white and blue flowers adorns the rooftop of Atlanta City Hall, overlooked by glass and concrete skyscrapers.

A resident of Philadelphia walks along a pathway filled with trees, shrubs and flowers.

A group of children help build a wetland in Charlotte, N.C., just outside their school.

Cities across America are confronting the issue of stormwater, also called water quality. Each city's efforts have a somewhat different look and feel, whether it be through wetlands that naturally clean the water, green roofs that keep and store the water while also cleaning it or parks that provide buffers to rivers and streams.

"Regulations continue to evolve and change, and they aren't getting any less stringent," said Daryl Hammock, water quality team leader for the city of Charlotte.

Cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Nashville are changing their water-quality programs as they continue to see increased pressure from federal regulators to manage the rain that falls upon their streets and floods their area streams.

Other places, such as Charlotte, are starting to change philosophy as their programs become less about flood control and more about the quality of the water in general.

Different systems

Every system is also different in how it operates, records show. Older cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago rely heavily on combined sewer and stormwater systems because their infrastructure was developed more than a hundred years ago.

Cities such as Charlotte, Nashville and Chattanooga rely more heavily on separate stormwater systems that are a series of drainage pipes running straight to rivers and streams and relying heavily on being cleaned through the natural ecosystems.

Janet Ward, spokeswoman for the Clean Water Atlanta program, said the city now is negotiating its stormwater permit with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For years, the city relied on paying for its stormwater permit out of a mix of water and sewer fees, along with money from the general revenue fund for the city's Department of Public Works, she said.

Ms. Ward said she did not know how much money was going toward water quality.

"It was the bare minimum," she said.

She said the city now plans on creating its own stormwater utility, which will focus solely on water quality and make sure standards are being met. A stormwater fee also is being proposed to the Atlanta City Council, she said.

The move is necessary, she said, because every municipality nationwide must deal with an issue that has been ignored for a long time -- what to do about the water that falls from the sky and ends up in the city's creeks, streams and rivers.

Atlanta wants to address that by creating its own stormwater utility system, which will focus entirely on the issue of stormwater instead of being a hodgepodge of other utilities, she said.

"Nationwide, it's huge," Ms. Ward said. "Everybody's going to have a stormwater utility."

Fees go up

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Chattanooga beefed up its stormwater program just months ago, increasing the fee on residential and nonresidential users. Records show other cities across the United States -- including those in the Southeast -- already have or are considering the same thing.

Atlanta proposed in May raising the stormwater fee to $120 a year for homeowners, a move that would raise $24 million in stormwater revenue.

Every year, Charlotte raises its fee to pay for its $40 million program. Mr. Hammock said they have raised the fee about 5 percent a year since 1993, with each year being a different amount.

But the city's fee system has tiers in which homes that are up to 1,999 square feet assessed $5.83 a month, while those at 5,000 square feet or more are assessed at $10.01 per month, records show.

Starting July 1, Philadelphia will begin a transition into a green infrastructure program costing $1.6 billion over 20 years -- substantially less than the estimated $7.6 billion it would cost to fix the city's current aging stormwater and sewer system that is designed around 150-year-old pipes and pits for cleaning stormwater, officials said.

Andrew Reese, vice president for AMEC Earth and Environmental Inc., a London, England-based company, said he has spent more than 25 years as a consultant on stormwater projects in all 50 states. He has worked in Nashville, Philadelphia and Charlotte with those cities' programs, he said.

Every city is different, he said, and every city has its own needs. Some places have combined sewer and stormwater drainage pipes, while others have more separated sewer systems, he said.

Some places such as Charlotte see constant flood control problems, he said, while other places out West see hardly a drop of rain.

The project in Philadelphia still is in the experimental phases, Mr. Reese said. City leaders want to turn to "urban greening," redesigning city streets with more trees and green space to allow water to soak into the ground.

But the plan still has some skeptics, both national and locally, Mr. Reese said.

STORMWATER SERIESSUNDAY -- OverviewMONDAY -- UtilitiesTUESDAY -- Where do flushes go?WEDNESDAY -- Health impactTHURSDAY -- Development and runoffFRIDAY -- Stream restorationTODAY -- Lessons from other citiesSUNDAY -- What's next: Tomorrow's green technology

"Has the EPA bought into the program?" he asked. "Well, not yet. Have the citizens bought into it? Well, not yet."

For years in Nashville, sewer fees paid for its ongoing program. Just last year, the city instituted a separate stormwater fee that now is funding a program that costs about $7 million, officials said.

"They are moving rapidly into green infrastructure," Mr. Reese said.

In Charlotte, the program started in 1993, officials said. Each year, the city has raised its fees, making sure it fills the needs of its capital programs and operating costs.

Jim Schumaker, assistant city manager, said Charlotte found out in the 1980s that its stormwater system was deteriorating. Since then, the city has put hundreds of millions of dollars into updating pipes and culverts for flooding and building wetlands and restoring streams as part of water quality, he said.

When the program first started, there was some opposition, he said.

"Of course, there were some who felt like we shouldn't be taxing rain," he said.

Each year, the city has about a $31 million capital budget and $10 million for its operating budget, he said.