Taming the Asphalt Jungle

Chimborazo rain garden

Rain gardens and pervious pavers are encroaching on hard surfaces as Richmond's three-year-old stormwater utility rolls out programs to control flooding and reduce runoff into the James River.

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 square footage of impervious surface, and non-residential property owners $45 per Equivalent Residential Unit.

Michelle Virts"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 the 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."

The problems associated with nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer have been widely publicized. Those chemicals serve as nutrients that feed vast algal blooms. When the algae dies, it decomposes and consumes the oxygen in the water, creating dead zones that suffocate marine life.

In terms of overall impact, however, sediment is even worse, says John Fowler, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Sediment clouds the water, blocking sunlight from reaching the underwater grasses. "If they don't get sunlight, they can't produce oxygen, and the fish can't breath. ... When it rains, the James is nothing but mud. It sticks around for days and days."

More than a dozen localities around Virginia, most of them in Hampton Roads, have establishied stormwater utilities. The fees charged don't come close to covering the full cost of the stormwater problem, says Joe Lerch, director of environmental policy for the Virginia Municipal League. The state has seen big gains with its investment in sewage treatment plants, but it will cost a lot more money to address the stormwater challenge. "It's a lot more expensive to get that extra pound of phosphorous or nitrogen."

Some problems, like Richmond's Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) system are at least localized, even if enormously expensive to fix. But the scouring of sediment from creeks and streams is ubiquitous. "Every time you put in new subdivisions, roads and houses, you increase the volume of water that flows into streams."

Further complicating the picture, stormwater control systems in urban areas were built originally for flood control, not for cleaning the water. Indeed, that priority continues. A primary use to which the City of Richmond puts its stormwater utility revenues is flood control.

The stormwater drainage system requires a lot of maintenance, says Virts, Richmond's deputy of utilities. Drainage inlets need de-clogging. Old pipes need replacing. Ditches need re-digging. The utility provides the city a dedicated revenue stream to increase staffing and equipment, allowing it to respond more quickly to complaints.

The stormwater fee also provides funds for capital projects such as "green" alleys with pervious pavement and rain gardens like the one at Chimborazo Elementary. The program polices elicit discharges, such as a recent case in which a mobile rug cleaning van dumped wash water into a storm drain that bypassed the wastewater treatment facility; funds education and outreach like the city's "Build a Barrel, Save the Bay" initiative; and provides incentives for property owners to install rain barrels, put permeable pavers in their patios, and set up rain gardens and vegetative filter strips that limit stormwater runoff.

A credit program rebates up to 50% of homeowners' stormwater utility bills over three years for making those investments. Admittedly, taking $37.50 (or less) off the utility bill is a modest financial incentive at best -- so far, only property owners have applied for the credit on 200 parcels -- but the program does serve to focus homeowners' thinking on how to reduce the runoff.

The incentive could be more meaninful when combined with other initiatives, such as one launched by the Reedy Creek Coalition in south Richmond. There, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay is using a $200,000 federal grant to recruit and train volunteers to audit properties and find opportunities to capture and treat stormwater. This program will pay up to $500 for the installation of trees and rain barrels, $1,500 for rain gardens, $1,500 for permeable pavers, and $1,200 for "bayscapes," which converts lawns into gardens of indigenous plants that provide wildlife habitat and filter more rainwater.

The Reedy Creek initiative also has partnered with the James River Association in a program that allows people to get discount coupons from Lowe's, Home Depot and local nurseries. About 70 people have signed up for audits so far, says Nissa Dean, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

Transforming an urban stormwater infrastructure designed mainly for flood control, parts of which date back to the 19th century, is a momumental task. Whether the current funding levels will do much more than ameliorate local flooding, pay for a few high-profile demonstration projects and encourage a few hundred homeowners to put rain barrels under their downspouts is an open question. So is the matter of whether the stormwater utility will assuage the EPA's insistence upon showing continued progress in fixing the city's combined-sewage overflow problem.

But one thing seems inarguable: The City of Richmond is doing more to clean up the river than it was four years ago.


This article was made possible by a sponsorship of Bon Secours of Virginia Health System.


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