The Forgotten Utility

Could you imagine if the water supplied to your house, or the wastewater leaving your house was treated, transmitted and available for unlimited use without a charge?  Likewise, think about the electricity that powers all those appliances and gadgets throughout your home.  What if it was provided at no cost?  Fat chance you say – and you are right.   We have long recognized that the infrastructure vital to our way of life cannot be effective, reliable, and … free.  We accept that there is a constant need for maintenance, repair, new equipment, expanded service, environmental controls, and some administration to keep connections, accounts and service needs under control.  We understand that for every cubic foot of water used or wastewater discharged, and every kWH of electricity consumed that we must pay a user fee to cover the cost of service provided by these infrastructure utilities.

There is an additional infrastructure system winding throughout our community providing yet another vital service toward our safety and environment protection.   I call it the forgotten utility.    This infrastructure frequently sits with little to do, but when called into action at a moment’s notice it is expected to function flawlessly, dealing with the unpredictability of Mother Nature.    I am referring to the stormwater infrastructure of Howard County – the forgotten utility.

Stormwater infrastructure is a key aspect of our community design and has been built into construction projects for many years.  Initially the designs focused on getting water off the roads. More recently, the designs have expanded  to a system that moves water off all impervious areas in a manner that also protects our waterways from erosion and pollution.   This is a tall order for a community with almost 19,000 acres of impervious surfaces including rooftops, parking lots, driveways and sidewalks.    To put it in perspective, our stormwater infrastructure includes over 4,800 facilities (ponds, separators, bio-swales, rain gardens) all of which must be inspected by the county along with the maintenance of about  1,600 facilities (the remainder are under private maintenance agreements) .  There are 23,000 inlets and no doubt a similar number of outfalls to be maintained.  There are over 700 miles of stormwater conveyance pipe in the ground in addition to roadside ditches that convey stormwater along the 1,000 miles of roadway in the County.

All together our stormwater infrastructure represents an investment of over $660 million.   This infrastructure needs routine maintenance to ensure proper functioning of the various facilities. Further, since we now know that urban stormwater runoff is responsible for over 20% of the pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, this infrastructure and its maintenance become vital in our collective efforts to save the Bay.

Unfortunately, as the forgotten utility, there is no dedicated source of funds to perform routine inspection and maintenance, no less to initiate any system upgrades to better manage runoff and thereby minimize the negative impact of stormwater on our creeks, rivers and the Bay.  Without a dedicated utility, the stormwater infrastructure must compete for financial need with all other general government programs.  We are not alone in this dilemma.  In Maryland, only Montgomery County and a few cities have a stormwater utility fee set up to manage stormwater infrastructure.

But it looks like stormwater management is about get some recognition.  Late last year, Howard County began working with a consultant to explore the feasibility of a stormwater utility.   Just as a water utility billing on the volume of water supplied, or a power utility billing based on the amount of electricity used, a stormwater utility would bill based on the amount of impervious area on a parcel – since it is this impervious ground cover that causes runoff.   Also, like the other utilities that reward conservation with reduced charges, a stormwater utility may provide fee relief if areas of impervious cover are reduced and/or additional runoff controls are added.  At the end of the state legislative session, a bill was passed requiring 10 Maryland counties, Howard included, to establish a stormwater remediation fee.    Our study puts us ahead of the curve on this mandate.  We will be ready when the compliance date comes around in July 2013.

So funds are coming that will help minimize flooding due to clogs, broken pipes, or dredging needs; and to guarantee the construction of new systems to improve water quality in our streams and the Bay. The forgotten utility is about join the ranks of other self-supporting infrastructure utilities.  I say it is about time.

Jim Caldwell

Stormwater Manager

Jim Caldwell