Stormwater is a common problem for every city across the country. What's unique about New York is the amount of time that is taking to effectively tackle it.

Robert Lawton

Stormwater is a common problem for every city across the country. What's unique about New York is the amount of time that is taking to effectively tackle it.

Stormwater is the 800-pound gorilla in the city’s menagerie of environmental issues related to water.

It is also one that, compared with the better-known problem of combined sewer overflows, the city is taking more time—and could take even more money—to begin addressing.

The city’s combined sewer system — which covers about 60 percent of New York — moves sewage from toilets, tubs and sinks through the same pipes as rainwater. When it rains heavily, that infrastructure can’t handle the sudden rush of water, resulting in combined sewer overflows, also known as CSOs. Every year 30 billion gallons of raw sewage gets discharged into city waterways via CSOs. The city is in the midst of a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort to reduce them.

But that initiative won’t deal all the rainwater that falls outside the combined sewer system. During a storm the water that is not absorbed into the ground starts running off impervious surfaces such as rooftops, sidewalks, roads, parking lots, which represent 72 percent of New York City’s 305 miles of land area, and drags everything it’s on its way–from plastic bottles and chemicals to fecal bacteria from animal waste–into creeks and open waters.

And the problem is likely to get worse thanks to a dangerous cocktail of climate change and urban densification. “As urban dwellers we can see a huge boom of buildings, which usually add to impervious surface, combined with more and more rainfalls,” says Jaime Stein, chair of the S.W.I.M. coalition steering committee and professor at Pratt Institute.

Putting a price on pollution

Reducing CSOs is a costly undertaking: The city’s Water Finance Authority estimates the effort to comply with a 2012 federal consent order on CSO reduction will be more than $2 billion. Some of that expense will be on so-called gray infrastructure, which means expanding sewer system capacity, usually by building retention tanks to accommodate additional water and prevent overflows. The city also is working to capture stormwater before it even gets into the sewer system building green infrastructure such as bioswales, green roofs and draining pavements.

In 2010 DEP launched a Green Infrastructure program aimed to incentivize and fund “GI.” The goal is to capture one inch of stormwater runoff from 10 percent of impervious areas in the combined sewer areas of NYC.

But the GI Program can fund interventions only on Combined Sewer Overflows areas, leaving the remaining 40 percent of the city that relies on separate sewer, without such a program.

“There is no green infrastructure here because we are not a CSO area,” said Karen Argenti from the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality at a recent meeting, speaking about runoffs and flooding issues along the Harlem River that occur every time it rains. “To build a new sewer it’s going to take 10 years but GI is simple and could be done easily.”

Stormwater is a common problem for every city across the country. What’s unique about New York is the amount of time that is taking to effectively tackle it. Portland, Chicago and Philadelphia are among the cities that focused on this problem years ago.

Doing so requires resources, technical capacity and also a mentality shift through which people realize the effect of stormwater and are willing to pay their fare share. Traditionally, water billing systems charge customers for the water they draw from supply pipes and discharge into the sewer system—not the amount of rainfall runoff a property generates, despite the steep environment costs of that stormwater.

The City of Philadelphia, not without some initial difficulties, managed to change that. In 2011 the Pennsylvania city launched Green City, Clean Waters, a 25-year program aimed to reduce CSO and stormwater runoff by expanding existing stormwater charges together with a series of grants and incentives to build GI on public and private properties across the entire city and not just combined-sewer areas.

“We always had stormwater charges but they were under a different name and based on metering, which created inequity. Townhouses would pay more stormwater fees than a parking lot would,” says Erin Williams, manager of the Stormwater Billing & Incentives Program.

Today in Philadelphia property owners pay for the amount of runoff that each property generates. The charge is based on the amount of impervious surface indicated on the property’s parcel. By turning more of their property green, landowners can reduce the percentage of impervious surface and see their stormwater charge go down.

It was not easy for Philly to put that system in place. “The technical implementation was the hardest part,” says Williams, “We started in 2006 to build the parcel database. It took four years to compound it and process it into the stormwater charges.”

To makes sure people understood what the stormwater charge was for, the city of Philadelphia actively engaged with its citizens a year before the charge was introduced. “We did a lot of public outreach, held six public meetings. We gave voice to people concerns and held a citizen advisory committee for almost a year after the program started,” says Joanne Dahme, public affair manager at Philadelphia Water Department.

Philadelphia currently manages to keep more than 1.5 billion gallons of polluted water out of its rivers each year and the charges cover the approximately $100 million spent in stormwater management.

Local obstacles

In New York things are quite different. New Yorkers pay a fixed rate per gallon on the water they use. Built into that charge is a price for the water that goes into the sewage system. Baked into these rates are not just the water system’s operating expenses but also the costs that DEP sustains for maintaining and expanding water infrastructure, as well as a rental payment to the city’s general fund that dates back to when the water system was made separate from the city’s budget.

For years advocates have asked the city to restructure the billing system to reflect more closely what people are actually consuming, wasting and producing in terms of water runoff.

“Stormwater fees in NYC are calculated out of the wastewater fees but are not related to the stormwater you are actually producing,” says Larry Levine, senior attorney from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This means that a parking lot operator, who would typically use very little drinkable water but whose impervious property could generate a huge amount of rain runoff, might pay less in water fees than a homeowner who generates far less runoff but uses more from the tap.

In May, NRDC urged the Water Board to restructure the way it bills New Yorkers. The advocacy group asked the Board to eliminate the rental payment and create a bill that reflects more closely what people are actually consuming and the real amount of runoff that properties generate by introducing a stormwater charge.

Introducing a stormwater charge, however, requires time and a certain technical capacity to collect accurate data, process it and build it into a new billing system as Philadelphia case shows. New York is way behind, advocates say,

“You need quality data on a parcel’s property runoffs and impervious surface,” says Levine. “The city could have started collecting these data years ago.”

New York’s DEP did begin experimenting with stormwater charges back in 2012, when it created the Stormwater Pilot Program for stand-alone parking lots, which agency literature describes as “an initiative that requires lot owners to pay a charge for the stormwater runoff they produce, or demonstrate that they are addressing stormwater on site with green infrastructure or other measures.” It was part of the NYC GI Infrastructure Plan and generated in 2014 a total of $501,882 in bills on 557 parking lots for runoff charges.

The program is still on-going. DEP didn’t respond to requests for comment on whether an expansion is possible.

Electoral considerations could make an expanded stormwater fee a tough sell. A stormwater charge could be considered an additional tax, which elected officials are unlikely to be anxious to propose. In Maryland for example, the stormwater charge initiated in 2012 is now called the rain tax, and the new governor says he is looking into abolish it.

But the political obstacles to action, advocates say, are dwarfed by the environmental costs of the status quo.

“The problem is that we are not even talking about it,” says Levine. “We need to get the conversation started, if there is not a conservation there is no opportunity to educate people on this subject.”

Chances for a conversation

A recent court decision could create such an opportunity. In April, the de Blasio administration proposed a water rate increase by 2.1 percent together with a one-time credit of $183 for owners of one, two or three family homes. It also announced the cancellation of the rental payment for FY17, representing $244 million in savings for the Water Board.

The Rent Stabilization Association of New York sued the city, arguing that the proposal was arbitrary and unfairly burdened multi properties owners, effectively making them pay for the rebate to small homeowners. A New York State Supreme Court agreed, and at the end of June ruled the proposal “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion.”

The court essentially said that the new York’s water bill structure should reflect only the operating costs, the service provided and the exact amount of water that is consumed but also wasted. Some feel that opens the door to a more effective stormwater charge.

“The court reasoning supports a stormwater fee, because such a fee would be based on how much runoff a property actually contributes into the city’s sewers,” says Levine.

Meanwhile, the city continues to map out its strategy for addressing CSOs, filing long-term control plans (or LTCPs) for cleaning up 10 separate waterways affected by those discharges. Right now the city and state are locked in a legal dispute over whether the city is aggressively pursuing the Clean Water Act goal of fishable and swimmable waterways. Beyond the city’s plans and the state’s critique, it’s unclear that goal can be achieved by looking solely at CSOs and not at the deeper issue of stormwater.

“It feels like if the city is slowly sinking in the water management issues,” says Sean Dixon, staff attorney at Riverkeeper, “If we don’t talk about the big gorillas now, in four years is going to be worse.”