by James A. Bacon
It’s not often that Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond’s inner city generates positive attention but June 1 was a special day. Mayor Dwight Jones, Congressman Bobby Scott and assorted state and local dignitaries gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a storm water garden on what had been a gray asphalt school yard.
Dressed in bright white shirts and dark pants, four school children filed up to the podium to read to the assembled audience. “Have you ever seen it rain so hard that rain came running down off the roof, rushing down the sidewalk or covering the street? The water is known as storm water,” read one student.”The water picks up trash, dog droppings and fertilizer, carrying it into the creeks and rivers,” continued another. “Richmond City built this beautiful rain garden at Chimborazo Elementary School… The soil and plants will soak up some of the water that would run down into the storm drain…”
As a practical matter, the Chimborazo rain garden has little more than symbolic value. A few square yards of vegetative buffer on a school yard will do little in a city of 60 square miles to curb the problem of urban storm water runoff, stream erosion and pollution in the James River. But it’s a start. And it’s a visible example of taxpayer dollars at work. The project was funded, with state assistance, by the Richmond Stormwater Utility.
Richmond’s infrastructure, more than a century old in parts of the city, has serious storm water issues. In major downpours, storm water mixes with sewage, overwhelms the sewage treatment plant and flows into the James River. In other sections of the city, storm water rampages through creeks and streams, erodes banks and washes sediment into the river. Localized flooding is also a problem in many neighborhoods.
The stormwater utility, created in 2009, raises about $9 million a year by taxing property owners based on the area of impervious surface on their land.The city charges homeowners a fee ranging from $25 to $75 per year, depending upon the size of their lots, and non-residential property owners $45 per Equivalent Residential Unit.
“With a dedicated funding source, we can take a more proactive approach,” says Michelle Virts, deputy director of utilities in charge of stormwater, floodwater and wastewater (anything that relies upon gravity pipes, as she puts it). “We’re addressing the backlog of drainage complaints plus some capital improvements.”
People understand the necessity of paying water and sewer bills — they get tangible value in the form of functioning spigots and toilets. The stormwater fee is a harder sell. Indeed, the city is owed $6.8 million in uncollected stormwater fees because so many people have been unable or unwilling to pay. After taking a soft approach to collections of the new and unfamiliar fee, city officials have begun discussing whether to crank up collections efforts. The city is feeling heat from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve its stormwater control programs, and the money is needed.
The problems with stormwater are real, even if they are invisible to Richmond residents. Stormwater runoff washes fertilizer, pesticides, sediment and other pollution into James River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.
“Of all the sources of pollution plaguing the Bay and its tributaries, the only one that’s not improving is stormwater runoff,” says Chuck Epes, assistant director of media relations with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. With assistance from the EPA and the state, Virginia cities are upgrading their sewage treatment plants. Farmers are installing conservation practices to control pesticides, fertilizers and manure. But as Virginia’s population swells, houses, driveways, parking lots roads and other impermeable surface is replacing farms, forest and wetlands.
This “non-point source pollution” is so ubiquitous that it’s the hardest to tackle, says Epes. “It’s your back yard, my front yard. … It costs a lot of money to retrofit. … But if we don’t get a handle on stormwater runoff, it will overwhelm the improvements we’ve made on other fronts.” Read more.