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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wake of the Flood: Flood Waters, Bloated Budgets and a Plan to Save Your Community

When cutting costs, few municipalities start with an overhaul of their stormwater management program.  But, as it turns out, they should.  Stormwater management eats up a large percentage of tax revenue (e.g. 20% of property taxes in Downers Grove, Illinois).  Stormwater management is often wildly inefficient and ripe for dramatic gains with little to no impact on the public.  Finally, all municipalities—home rule and non-home rule—have express authority to take action immediately. 
In short, stormwater management is the low hanging fruit of budget cuts.  Instead of reaching for painful employment cuts, start with the following steps and make some easy gains.  Here’s how to start:
Step 1: Fix Your Code
Illinois law gives local governments legal authority to “regulate and determine the area of open spaces, within and surrounding such buildings,” and “set standards to which . . . structures shall conform.” 65 ILCS 5/11-13-1 (3); (6).  Plainly stated, local governments can set landscaping and grading standards for all buildings and structures in their jurisdiction. Moreover, the Illinois Legislature expressly states that local governments may use this authority to address “the hazards to persons and damage to property resulting from the accumulation or runoff of storm or flood waters.”
Most communities have exercised this authority and included landscaping and grading requirements in their zoning codes.  However, few ordinances connect landscaping ordinances with stormwater management goals.  Take, for example, Village A and B. 
Village A manages runoff by funneling all stormwater from parking lots and roofs directly to the municipal storm system (in some cases, with temporary detention on-site to reduce flow rate).   At the same time, Village A requires landowners to plant vegetation in islands throughout a parking lot and around the perimeter.  Landowners are required to put curbs around the vegetated areas which keep stormwater funneling toward the municipality’s storm sewer system.  A new parking lot can create 16 times more stormwater runoff than the lawn or field it replaced.  Using the tax dollars, Village A takes on the sole responsibility of managing this flood of water with its storm sewer system.
Village B takes a different approach.  Using the above authority, Village B requires parking lots to be graded toward the vegetated islands and perimeter.  Curbs are removed and water flows into these depressed vegetated areas (i.e. bioswales).  The runoff is filtered and absorbed by the plants that are required under the Village’s landscaping ordinance.  Storm drains are placed in the vegetated areas and collect water not absorbed. By coordinating its landscaping and stormwater management requirements, Village B dramatically reduces the volume (and pollutant load) of stormwater entering their system.  As a result, the system has less wear and a greater capacity to handle flash flood events. 
Step 2: Shift Your Expenses
In addition to maintenance costs, local governments must budget funds for pollution prevention. Most storm sewer systems are federally regulated (“Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems” or “MS4s”) under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”).  Among other requirements, local governments must choose from a menu of best management practices to reduce the amount of dirt, grease, salt and other pollutants that reach the storm sewer.  For many communities, street sweeping, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, is the pollution reduction method of choice. 
Street sweeping, however, is not the only option.  In fact, it is not even the preferred option for state and federal EPA regulators.  In the past few years, IEPA and USEPA have repeatedly noted that on-site retention using vegetated swales is the preferred best management practice when compared to street sweeping.  Agency guidelines are now pushing local governments to follow Village B’s lead.  By doing so, local governments not only gain the benefits of reduced sewer maintenance, but can reduce street sweeping efforts, saving additional money.  For example, in the City of Naperville, Illinois, a reduction in the scope and frequency of street sweeping is projected to save $170,000 annually.
Step 3:  Educate the Public
To gather support for your shifting regulations, make sure to educate the public. For landowners, the shift in landscaping, grading and curb requirements is good for their long-term bottom line. First, most applicants are required to grade parking lots and install vegetated islands under existing codes. The new ordinance simply shifts the direction of the grading and type of vegetation.  The cost of installing bioswales instead of curbed, vegetated (and watered) islands is likely a wash. Second, remind the public that the modified zoning code is designed to reduce flooding. In Illinois, flooding is the greatest threat to both residential and commercial property. By reducing this threat, local governments are reducing flood-related expenses for private landowners.
In the end, an efficient stormwater management policy will reduce government spending, reduce property taxes, reduce flood losses, and please state and federal regulators (who control future funding). Before cutting much needed community services to repair your budget, look at how you manage stormwater.  Are you taking advantage of these reductions or washing your money away?

Post Authored by Brent Denzin, Ancel Glink


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