Answers to some common questions about stormwater fees in Pennsylvania
A: When rainwater flows off our streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, it picks up fertilizers, pesticides, oil and automotive fluids, pet waste, sediment, and other pollutants. This simple process—untreated stormwater flowing through gutters and storm drains—pollutes our rivers and streams and threatens our drinking water. It also causes problems like local flooding of streets and homes, beach closures, fish advisories, and sewage system overflows.
A: Up until about the 1980s, builders didn't know much about the problems associated with polluted runoff. They just designed developments to flush the water off the property quickly. Now we realize runoff should be slowed down and soaked up to prevent pollution from running off developed areas and into our local rivers and streams.
Progress is being made across the Chesapeake Bay watershed to reduce air pollution and pollution from wastewater treatment plants and agriculture. Tackling polluted urban and suburban runoff, however, remains a big challenge. In fact, it is one of the only sources of nitrogen pollution to the Bay that is still growing.
A: Based on scientific studies, as of 2018 more than 5,100 miles of Pennsylvania's rivers and streams were considered impaired¹ due to stormwater runoff. That means they cannot support healthy levels of aquatic life or may be unfit for recreation and fishing. Especially after heavy rainfall, human health can also be at risk from the bacteria and pollution washed into these streams. Downstream, the pollution contributes to harmful algal blooms and low-oxygen dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay.
To help reduce this pollution and its negative effects, the state requires cities and many small towns to have stormwater permits that limit the amount of pollution they can release into local waterways. The permits, which have existed since the 1990s, are renewed every five years. Often, each successive permit requires stronger pollution controls that municipalities must meet. For cities and towns in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these permits also take into account the pollution reductions Pennsylvania committed to make in the federal-state partnership to clean up the Bay, known as the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
At the same time permit requirements are getting tougher, Pennsylvania’s infrastructure is getting older. In fact, much of the Commonwealth’s water infrastructure is more than 100 years old and needs ongoing repairs, replacement, and capacity upgrades, according to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers². Old and failing infrastructure can make it harder to meet pollution reduction goals, as well as increase the risk of floods and sewage overflows. As a result, many municipalities are having to make significant investments to upgrade their stormwater systems.
A: State and local governments use taxes and fees to fund public services that we all want and need—things like street maintenance, sewage treatment, garbage collection, police and fire departments, and schools. Making sure stormwater runoff doesn't pollute our rivers and streams and flood our neighborhoods is also an important public service, and stormwater fees help ensure local governments have enough funding to pay for it.
Fees are different than taxes because they are directly tied to a person or institution's use of a service or contribution to a problem, with the amount set accordingly. The money collected from fees is then used to directly fund the service or fix the problem.
In the case of stormwater, the amount of polluted water running off someone's property is related to how much of the land is covered in hard surfaces—for example, rooftops, driveways, and patios—and for commercial properties, paved parking lots and service roads. More hard surfaces result in more runoff. Stormwater fees are therefore charged based on the area of these surfaces that exist on a property.
A: Stormwater fees help local governments pay for infrastructure projects and services that clean up pollution and reduce the amount of stormwater runoff reaching nearby streams and rivers. While there is a wide range of solutions, most projects aim to slow down the runoff from developed areas by creating ways for more of it to soak into the ground, instead of rushing down driveways and streets directly into sewers and streams. When runoff can soak into the ground, there is less of it to cause flooding. In addition, it is cleaned as it filters through the soil.
Examples of practices that accomplish this include rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, forested streamside buffers, permeable pavements, among others. In Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, communities have plans—or are in the process of creating plans—that outline specific, on-the-ground projects to reduce stormwater pollution. Each of these projects has identifiable costs for which the stormwater fees will be used.
The fees stay local; they are used to fund stormwater projects that reduce pollution and decrease local flooding in the communities where they are collected. The fees are a dedicated funding source to help communities meet their stormwater permit requirements. They may not be used for other purposes.
A: No. Stormwater fees are not a "tax" on the rain. Property owners are not charged related to how much rain or snow falls; they are charged based on the area of their property that can't soak up water. In other words, properties with more hard surfaces pay more in stormwater fees because they contribute to more of the problem. Properties with fewer hard surfaces pay less, because they contribute less to the problem.
A: Stormwater fees are calculated to raise enough money to support projects the municipality has identified to reduce polluted runoff. For homeowners in many communities, the cost of stormwater fees usually works out to be the equivalent of a couple cups of McDonalds' coffee per month. For landowners of larger commercial sites with big roofs or pavement that contribute a lot of polluted runoff, stormwater fees cost considerably more. Again, the cost is related directly to how much of the land does not allow stormwater to soak into the ground, thus producing more polluted runoff and localized flooding.
The good news is that most programs have ways for landowners to reduce their fees by helping to solve the problem on their property. This can include installing practices like rain barrels or rain gardens, or making driveways and parking areas out of materials that allow water to soak into the ground. Local stormwater authorities or utilities can help property owners choose the best options to fit their property and budget, and can provide imnformation about how the practices can be used to earn credits to reduce fees.
A: Making the necessary upgrades to stormwater infrastructure can be a big financial lift for smaller communities. While financing stormwater projects on their own is one way to meet stormwater permit requirements, it's not the most efficient way. A more cost-effective option can be for municipalities to partner with each other to address stormwater problems. This allows communities to design a regional plan of action, and then use the group’s collective resources to put into place the best solutions in the most effective places. Having a single entity that develops plans, obtains engineering designs, and contracts for construction of these projects can create greater cost savings and efficiency than if municipalities act alone.
Q: Why do some areas charge stormwater fees and others do not? Are other places in Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake Bay watershed charging stormwater fees?
A: Roughly 1,000 municipalities in Pennsylvania are required to have stormwater permits issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP). As stormwater permit requirements become more stringent, and existing stormwater infrastructure ages, these municipalities face significant costs to upgrade their stormwater systems. As a result, some municipalities are choosing to create stormwater authorities financed by stormwater fees to address the problem.
As of June 2019, a dozen municipalities in Pennsylvania already charge stormwater fees. In addition, communities in several Pennsylvania counties have decided to work together to form stormwater authorities that collectively address polluted runoff in their region. The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority stormwater fee program, for example, includes 32 local governments.
Other states are using stormwater fees, too. In Maryland, half a dozen large counties and a handful of small towns charge stormwater fees. Washington, D.C. has a stormwater fee program, as do 25 municipalities in Virginia. Across the country, more than 1,600 stormwater authorities are operating today.
Q: Why can't we just let the states bordering the Chesapeake Bay take care of the pollution problem?
A: Most importantly, polluted stormwater runoff isn't just a problem downstream in the Bay. It's an equally serious problem in our own local creeks, streams, rivers, and lakes. Polluted runoff makes our streams too dirty to fish or recreate in, and it can foster the growth of bacteria and algae that are a risk to public health. Fast-moving stormwater runoff also blows out the banks of rivers and streams, causing sediment to turn the water chocolate-brown and smothering fish habitat. This pollution also makes it much more expensive to clean up the river water that we use for drinking.
So cleaning up polluted runoff has direct benefits for Pennsylvania communities. But it is also part of being a good neighbor. Each of the six states that share the Chesapeake Bay watershed—Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Delaware, and West Virginia, along with the District of Columbia—are responsible for cleaning up the pollution in their rivers that feed the Bay, so everyone can enjoy clean water. Pennsylvania has an important role because the Susquehanna River and its feeder streams supply about 50 percent of the fresh water entering the Bay.
¹ Draft 2018 Pennsylvania Integrated Water Quality and Monitoring Report Clean Water Act Section 303(d) and 305(b) Report