What’s coming in 2010: the set-up for an increase in the Stormwater Management Fee

The dance has begun.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a list of “consequences” for jurisdictions that fail to implement the necessary steps to meet the minimum Clean Water Act standards required to save the Chesapeake Bay.

As expected, these include refusing to issue new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to add more pollution from large sources, and a threat to withhold EPA grants.  In Prince William County, EPA’s threats did not generate alarm, and the attitude that we can continue “business as usual” still predominates.  Because EPA muted its threats, local officials will continue to approve new projects that will damage local water quality… and require mitigation later.

A “stitch in time” may save nine, but implementing common-sense design to minimize stormwater runoff would require developers to conserve existing creeks rather than pave them over.  Correcting damaged streams later will be very expensive – but taxpayers will be asked to fund it, through an increase in the stormwater management fee.

If you’re a developer, you probably like that formula.  If you’re a taxpayer, you should be outraged that Prince William County officials are transferring the long-term clean-up costs to the public sector, in order to maximize short-term profits of a few developers.

EPA is still pursuing the “speak softly” approach and reserving its big stick until later, rather than following the “shock and awe” strategy.  If EPA had added one item to its list of consequences – the threat to block Federal grants for highway/transit projects – then it might have triggered recognition among local officials that more-of-the-same development creates too much pollution and is no longer acceptable.

Conservation groups got the attention of local media by criticizing the latest EPA plan.  That’s no surprise.  Over the past 20 years, predictable accusations that EPA was asleep at the switch fell into the “dog bites man, so it’s not news” category.

However, clear Chesapeake Bay clean-up deadlines have been established by a Federal court.  The new Obama Administration appears willing to enforce the law.  Expectations are higher now, so the latest environmental criticism appeared to be news.

What’s missing from the media coverage is the discussion of how Prince William officials will have to react to the Clean Water Act requirements.   Unless you have really rosy glasses, you know that Prince William will have to reduce the existing levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pouring into the Potomac River… and that’s before we add another 100-150,000 residents to the county.  (We can’t add those new residents without adding new pollution, so reductions in existing pollution will have to be significant.)

The specific limits on nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment will be transmitted by EPA to Virginia by November, when the Federal agency defines the maximum pollution that each state can contribute to the Chesapeake Bay in the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) calculations.  In 2011, the state will then pass along the pain to local governments, setting specific limits on how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment can be dumped into local creeks and rivers.

The future is clear.  At some point, the Board of County Supervisors, City Councils in Manassas/Manassas Park, and Town Councils in Quantico, Dumfries, Occoquan, and Haymarket will be forced to modify existing ordinances on zoning and site development, especially for erosion and sediment control, to reduce new non-point pollution that flows into our local waterways.

However, we’ll have to do more than change ordinances to reduce new pollution.    We’ll have to retrofit existing development, primarily the paved roads/parking lots and the rooftops that shed raindrops too quickly into local creeks, to reduce existing pollution – significantly.  It won’t be cheap.

How will we pay for this?  Look for the developers to propose an increase in the Stormwater Utility Fee paid by county property owners, and to use the extra $$$ to modify existing stormwater ponds and to install new ones.  That’s how the developers would like Prince William to finance the costs to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Hmmm… before increasing the stormwater fee on taxpayers to mitigate damage from old development, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure new development does not increase the problem and increase future costs?  When we’re stuck in a hole, shouldn’t we stop digging?

If you like lower taxes, then support the proposed Environment Chapter for updating the county’s Comprehensive Plan.  It calls for conserving “significant” as well as “perennial” streams.  Developers are complaining to the elected supervisors that this requirement will alter their site designs, and potentially their profits, at places such as Virginia Gateway in Gainesville. Developers don’t want to alter the way they are paving over our creeks; developers want taxpayers to be stuck with the bill for even more mitigation projects.

Pay attention to the way Prince William plans to fund the clean up $$$ required by the Federal court.  The pain won’t be transmitted through EPA’s TMDL studies and the state’s Watershed Implementation Plans until later this year and in 2011 – but the developers are already talking about raising the stormwater fee.

The set-up is getting underway in various budget discussions now, as well as claims that Prince William must offer “flexibility” to developers to demonstrate our commitment to the business community.   The developers are hoping local residents won’t notice that business-as-usual development will keep damaging the creeks, and that taxpayers will have to finance additional mitigation costs as we add over 100,000 new residents.

When EPA and state limits are revealed over the next two years, some local politicians will squeal about unfunded mandates.  If we have any responsible local politicians, however, they will take action now (starting with the update of the Environment Chapter) so we minimize future damage and minimize future costs.

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