Without much fanfare, city and county leaders recently got together to mull over the possibility of levying new taxes on local property tax owners – to provide for the removal of stormwater in a manner that does not pollute streams. No immediate decision was reached and if the system is approved, it could take 18-24 months to start collecting the tax, estimated at $4 to $7 per household monthly.
Stormwater – which runs off roofs and pavement and sometimes causes flash floods – used to be little more than an afterthought. It’s rarely a problem in the natural world, where abundant vegetation captures surplus drainage and channels it to the water table to be available for plants and animals as needed later, when there’s too little rather than too much rain.
Urban and suburban development made things much more complicated. Cities soon discovered they needed extensive networks of piping to convey water into the nearest stream rather than having it pool on the roads or flood basements. At first, it was easier to collect both stormwater and “sanitary” sewage in the same pipes and dump it all together. When cities began treating their sewage instead of just sloshing it into public waters, these combined systems, some of which can be found in the older parts of Frankfort, stank in dry weather and overflowed in wet periods, spewing bilge into the river.
Whether storm and sanitary sewers were combined or separate, some residents solved their home drainage problems by connecting downspouts to the public sewers, introducing more liquid into the system and overloading the sewage treatment plant. City Sewer Director Bill Scalf said last year his system was funded to treat 1 billion gallons of wastewater but actually had to handle 3 billion gallons. The excess can result from leaky sewer pipes as well as illegal connections. City Hall periodically threatens to crack down on the latter, but illicit plumbing may be as prevalent and unmanageable as illegal immigration.
Some of the stormwater, which collects environmental pollutants while running off impermeable surfaces, is dirty enough it could stand treatment, but the plant wasn’t designed to handle it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set up the National Pollutant Discharge Elimiination System to oversee outfalls from municipal storm sewers, construction sites and industries, which now may be required to obtain discharge permits.
Consultant Steven McKinley warned the City Commission and Fiscal Court in their joint meeting earlier this month to brace themselves for backlash when property owners must pay up to protect waterways “from the rainfall coming from their houses.” The tax would be payable in both wet and dry weather.
Perhaps it should apply only to homes connected to storm sewer systems, mostly in the city although some county subdivisions may also have them. Larger properties should able to absorb their own runoff naturally. But high-density neighborhoods, city or county, need help with their water problems.
Subdivisions have been developed without adequate attention to storm drainage. When trouble cropped up after the land developers departed, taxpayers had to finance solutions. That’s something local planners and politicians should think about the next time a subdivider wants to develop on the cheap.