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With DC stormwater, who pays, and for what?

Water bills for DC residents and businesses may increase soon to help pay for improved stormwater infrastructure. But not everyone agrees how to pay for the infrastructure or even what kind of infrastructure to build.

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia on Flickr.

Next week DC Water's Retail Rates Committee will meet to decide what rate increases will take effect this fall for customers whose properties have character­istics that contribute to stormwater runoff and pollution. As they do this, advocates are calling for a more equitable distribution of fees as well as discounts for low-income residents.

And as DC Water moves ahead with plans to manage stormwater runoff, it is also working to convince the Environmental Protection Agency that implementing green infrastructure would reduce the amount of runoff altogether and decrease the need for more expensive projects.

DC struggles with the causes and costs of stormwater runoff

Every time we get a torrential downpour in DC, the first thing I think about (other than why haven't I bought good rain boots yet?) is the incredible amount of pollution that will be flowing into our rivers and stream. This happens because of the amount of impervious surfaces in the District.

Impervious surfaces, or surfaces such as concrete, brick, and asphalt that are non-porous and do not allow rain to seep through them into the ground, make up 42% of the District's land area. This is typical in urban settings, but it means that rather than rainwater being absorbed by a grassy yard, field, or forest floor, it flows downhill, washing all of the filth accumulated on the ground into storm drains.

To make matters worse, about one-third of DC is served by a sewer system that combines both stormwater and sewage. This system also serves customers in parts of Maryland and Virginia. The sheer volume of stormwater runoff from this large, urbanized are is much greater than our system can handle.

As a result, when heavy storms happen the system must release overflow into our waterways before it has been treated, polluting Rock Creek, the Anacostia, and Potomac Rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

There is a plan in progress to add 3 sets of massive storage tunnels to our system. The first set, to serve the Anacostia River, is now under construction. The second two will serve the Potomac River and the Rock Creek system.

This program, called the Clean Rivers project, will cost DC Water $2.6 billion and is funded in part by the fastest growing component of your water bill: the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (IAC). The IACs go up each year, most recently by 92%. Another 47$ increase is proposed for October 1.

District residents foot disproportionate share of the bill

The current fee structure put in place to address this issue disproportionately puts 93% of the burden on DC customers, with the customers in Maryland and Virginia paying only 7%.

Some might argue that these suburban jurisdictions should not have to pay into the Clean Rivers project to assist DC with the management of its own stormwater. However, there have been, and continue to be, major savings for these jurisdictions by virtue of being a part of our system, and it's completely appropriate to re-examine this arrangement under our current circumstances.

Furthermore, IACs apply only inside squares and lots, and not to impervious areas in DC's transportation rights of way. Yet the fact is that 47% of the impervious surfaces in DC are roads, streets, sidewalks, and alleys. While DC residents benefit heavily from them, suburban residents, businesses, commuters, and visitors get big benefits from them as well.

Additionally, there is currently no difference in the fee structure for residential customers and commercial customers. Commercial properties, such as office buildings, benefit disproportionately from the roads and sidewalks that employees, customers, and suppliers use to get there, and they additionally have the opportunity to disperse costs to their customers. It makes sense to have a slightly higher fee structure for them than, say, a single-family home.

Although DC Water has established a Customer Assistance Program (CAP) for low-income residential customers, that CAP does not apply to the IAC portion of the bill. Before the IACs started to increase so dramatically, bills under the CAP averaged about one-half of other residential bills.

Many of our residents in DC live on fixed incomes and would be deeply impacted by this type of increase in their water bills. In a recent letter, I urged DC Water to set a 50% discount for the IAC component of bills to CAP customers.

Reduce runoff instead of storing it

DC Water has been required by the EPA to build this new system of storage tunnels to manage stormwater runoff, and as it stands, DC customers will pay the bulk of the cost it takes to implement this new system. The desperately needed storage tunnel for the Anacostia runoff is being built and needs to be paid for.

Before construction begins on the remaining two storage tunnels, however, DC Water is hoping to persuade the EPA to re-examine the current requirements and instead allow for a plan involving the aggressive implementation of green infrastructure to reduce runoff altogether instead of storing it.

This would involve green roofs, permeable pavement and roads, and new trees and gardens. It would have the added benefit of creating jobs, improving air quality, adding green space to our communities, and creating subsidies for property owners to take individual action. That sounds a lot better to me than a couple of underground tunnels.

We can encourage the EPA to support DC Water's proposal by writing to EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin. We also don't have to wait to make green improvements to our properties. The District Department of the Environment offers incentives to homeowners for green property enhancements through its Riversmart Program.

Runoff reduction strategies can be implemented incrementally, improve our streets and neighborhoods, and may even be more cost effective than stormwater storage infrastructure. Check it out. I'm looking into rain barrels for my home this week. Maybe after that I'll finally get those rain boots.

Brianne Nadeau is the Vice-Chair of the Ward 1 Democrats, and was a Commissioner on ANC1B from 20062010. She is an active member of her prayer community, DC Minyan, and is a board member of Jews United for Justice. By day, she is an advisor to several non-profit organizations. Brianne resides on Belmont Street and has lived in Washington, DC since 2002. She is running for DC Council in Ward 1. 


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I'm curious to know how DC's Green Alley pilot program is going. Green alleys can have a significant impact on reducing runoff, and they're cheaper than digging big tunnels.

by David on Jun 22, 2012 12:54 pm • linkreport

It's the free ground water sewage that those high rises' garages get.

Most of those 2-story underground garages in the Old City have to be sump-pumped almost continuously to keep dry. Washington was a swamp and marsh after all. Sewage is measured by the amount of water coming in, not separately. An attempt to bill commercial buildings for sewage for ground water pumping was overturned by the DC Council ten years ago.

Those underground garages should be paying for the huge amount of ground water they are over-flowing the system with. It's not fair to make the citizens pay for it.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 22, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris: You bring this up in pretty much every comment thread that touches on water issues. Do you have any evidence to back up the claim that there is a huge amount of water being pumped into the system for free?

by Gray on Jun 22, 2012 1:12 pm • linkreport

"Most of those 2-story underground garages in the Old City have to be sump-pumped almost continuously to keep dry"

pardon, but isnt the investment driven by the peak needs during the worst storms? Not by the baseload usage 24/7? While those underground garages may be massively disproportionate baseload sourcs, are those buildings really disproportionate during storms, when all impervious surfaces are generating flow? Since they have high water usage relative to acreage (due to their density) maybe they are less than proportionate problems?

As for charging the suburbs, good point - BUT - the roads are used by ALL sububanites, and IIUC only a minoriy are in DC water - and those are mostly close in ones more likely to commute by metro ?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 22, 2012 1:14 pm • linkreport

"Many of our residents in DC live on fixed incomes and would be deeply impacted by this type of increase in their water bills. In a recent letter, I urged DC Water to set a 50% discount for the IAC component of bills to CAP customers. "

I guess those are the people in DC who have so many out of state muni bonds that they are worried about their top tax rates.

Snark aside, a pretty weak argument for asking suburbs to kick in. Remind me of the benefits DC gets from, I don't know, airport, railroads, and highways outside of its borders.

by charlie on Jun 22, 2012 1:18 pm • linkreport

D.C. Water was able to confirm that they are barred by law from charging fees for sump-pump overflow.

The problem is that I can find very little suggest that these buildings are using the sump-pump near 24x7. On the contrary, there is more evidence that modern building techniques are pretty good at sealing out water, etc. and very few are installed with sump pumps anymore. According to to some engineers I've spoken to, if sump pumps are needed, it's mostly in relation to heavy rainfall: rain that would otherwise be contributing to the runoff problem if it were hitting pavement or other paved surfaces anyway.

However, some older (primarily government) buildings do have more problems with basement groundwater which may have to be pumped more often, which is what apparently prompted the Council to take action to head-off the fees. In this case, I'm not sure if the government would be willing to raise its own fees but it's certainly something to look at.

by Adam L on Jun 22, 2012 1:30 pm • linkreport

Whether the pumps in Old City underground garages pump 24/7 or just at peak rainfall periods really doesn't matter because it's at the peak rainfall times that the problem necessitating the $2.6 Billion tunnels occurs. And water that has reached the depth of 30 or 40 feet that's pumped is in addition to the ordinary surface water runoff.

I'm very skeptical about these claims of new underground structures being waterproof and not needing their pumps much, both from experience and the fact that if true such structures would have an effect of raising adjacent water levels by displacing room for ground water.

While it may be difficult to measure sewage there are certainly ways around this perhaps by monitoring sump pump on-times or separately measuring sump pump flows in underground garages.

The fair thing would be to assess the underground parking a fee on either the building owner or the underground parker directly.

This should have already been dealt with in considering new underground structures and retrofitting old ones. Slapping the residents with such a huge increase now is the result of very poor planning (or none).

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 22, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

"And water that has reached the depth of 30 or 40 feet that's pumped is in addition to the ordinary surface water runoff. "

where would that water go during a storm if there were no underground garage? wouldn't it go into the stormwater system anyway?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 22, 2012 2:19 pm • linkreport

No. If it's reached that depth it's otherwise been successfully absorbed.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 22, 2012 2:32 pm • linkreport

So the commercial building owners went to the trouble and expense of lobbying to get a bill exempting them from paying sewage fees for ground water pumped from sump pumps but that amount was trivial anyway.

uh huh.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 22, 2012 5:17 pm • linkreport

Tom, I bet you're right that an unlimited sump drainage probably leads to more drainage (and cheaper foundations), but this part definitely isn't true,

both from experience and the fact that if true such structures would have an effect of raising adjacent water levels by displacing room for ground water

Groundwater is not a fixed substance in a fixed volume, unlike a bathtub. The otherwise displaced water is constantly removed during construction, and new rainfall landing on the building is taken away in sewers.

It does, however, reduce the volume of ground that can absorb rainwater, but I don't know much about this effect on an already urbanized area.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 22, 2012 6:43 pm • linkreport

@ Tom Coumaris; what is the effect of WMATA tunnels in your displacement scheme?

by charlie on Jun 22, 2012 7:01 pm • linkreport

Neil-There are numerous underground streams in the Old City. Next to me two huge new buildings are having to deal with them (as I have for years with basement apartments). They constantly shift. Moreover there is a certain amount of below surface soil to absorb water and when some of that is replaced by concrete cubes the water problems adjacent multiply. However, in my experience, this doesn't happen. Sump pumps are used to pump that water into the combined sewer system.

charlie- WMATA tunnels certainly have water problems in several spots. However Metro is a use I'd support citizen financial support of. Underground garages not so much.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 22, 2012 7:40 pm • linkreport

If you're talking about groundwater flow ("underground streams" is misleading), then yes, there can be some backup as flow hits the basements of some buildings, but there is often a corresponding subsidence on the other side. The pumps can actually worsen that subsidence, but usually, the flow does not raise the water table absolutely, like you were saying earlier.

I hear tell of development dropping local water tables, as more and more runoff is diverted to sewers, and even in places where wells are not used.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 23, 2012 1:10 am • linkreport

Funny you should mention it. I sent an email to some Council Members and the Director of WASA which follows
Jun 14 (9 days ago)
How come Philadelphia gets to
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the City of Philadelphia signed an agreement that will result in a $400,000 investment in Philadelphia's Green City Clean Waters program. This is in addition to the PWD's commitment of $1.2 billion (in today's dollars) drawn from water and sewer billing for green infrastructure over 25 years, which had been announced at the launch of Green City
Clean Waters in 2010.
while DC has to spend 2.5 billion on a tunnel
I know you are all aware of the Philadelphia agreement why did you let DC get screwed?
The answer I got
"We are aware and have tried to get similar treatment. The main difference is that Philadelphia was never put under a settlement agreement and order which we were and are trying to get adjusted. The policy people at EPA are sympathetic toward our requests but the enforcement side ( the lawyers) are less inclined. We are actively pursuing the matter."
I think we need to press EPA to treat us the same as Philadelphia.
I think we need to press hard to have the vast acres of surface parking lots converted to permeable surfaces as well as school playgrounds and paved parks.

by danmac on Jun 23, 2012 8:28 am • linkreport

Is permeable pavement in use anywhere in DC? I am trying wrap my head around the concept,and I'm having a tough time imagining concrete that allows rainwater to seep through.

It is admirable that DC Water is working on this green concept, but I wonder how much pull it has with other agencies. DDOT is laying new sidewalks along Connecticut Avenue, and the concrete and bricks look like the old-fashioned impervious kind. It seems like such a wasted opportunity, since the runoff here goes straight into Rock Creek and is responsible for a lot of the erosion in the park.

by TJ on Jun 23, 2012 1:33 pm • linkreport

I have not seen any actual numbers to support Tom's claims, but they certainly make sense. I think we really need to get measurements of outflows.

by SJE on Jun 23, 2012 2:51 pm • linkreport

Neil- A little personal experience: I have a basement apartment I rent out that used to have a water problem, as most basement apartments in the Old City do. I had a sump pump installed. Originally it went into the sewer system but I later diverted it. The small pump I use is rated 2200 gallons per hour at 10' lift and 3300 at 0 lift. This pump would often be on for an hour total a day after a heavy rain. Each emptying of the sump well would dispose of 50-100 gallons. By contrast a modern water saver toilet flush takes 1.6 gallons.

Very near me a 2-story below ground garage was built as part of a high rise. During construction I saw the two telephone booth size pumps that were installed. I can hear walking by when they work and during the past year they have been on as much as off. I joke with workers about them and they indicate they are often on. That's a huge surface that while not permeable before, also wasn't 40' deep.

Since the construction none of us in my row have had any need for our sump pumps as the water level has obviously gone done drastically. It also has caused the earth to compact to the point that huge cracks in the alley and my patio have appeared. The explanation we get is that the ground water removal has indeed compacted the earth.

There are other close-by projects that are experiencing the same or worse ground water problems. I would imagine that most of the underground garages in the K Street area would have at least similar problems.

People don't talk about how much ground water they are disposing of for free into the sewer system after heavy rains.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 23, 2012 9:02 pm • linkreport

Impervious streets and sidewalks are 42% of the land area so they are the largest single runnoff source. It is completely irrational that the cost of runnoff management is borne by the DC water and sewer rate payers since they are not the cause. There ought to be a payment from the municipality to cover it. It would come from general revenues, which are apparently in surplus. DC Water already pays a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) fee to the city which is of dubious justification.

Porous pavements would be worth exploring as a possible partial solution to reduce runoff, but before they are invested in on a large scale, they need to be proven reliable and cost effective in our environment. I would hope that they would not be breeders of potholes.

I am a non voting member of the BOD.

by Joe Cotruvo on Jun 24, 2012 2:05 pm • linkreport

Permeable pavements have historically proved troublesome in northern climates. They get clogged up by surface treatments in the winter, and fall apart when water permeates them and starts a daily freeze/thaw cycle. It would be nice if all the problems were solved and they turned into a generally useful solution, but other items like green roofs are more likely to pay off.

by Mike on Jun 25, 2012 9:52 am • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris; you support WMATA; that is great. I am not sure it is supported by the equities.

Mike raises this issue as well, which the local goverments (and something like WMATA) is part of the problem but the costs are passed off to somebody else.

And what happened to the idea of taxing/charing the feds for their buildings?

In addition, I think Tom is missing the point a bit. It isn't that the alleged groundwater use by basements is a problem -- it is a problem only in areas where you have combined sewers and when it is a heavy rain that overloads the storm sewers.

by charlie on Jun 25, 2012 10:43 am • linkreport

Can somebody please explain why DC Water decide to exclude transportation right-of-ways from the IAC. There may have been a good reason for it, but DC now has little incentive to install green alleys, etc.

What is DC Water's proposal for evaluation criteria re whether green infrastructure can satisfy its obligations under its permit and consent decree? What happens if implementation falls short and/or if the green infrastructure does not work as planned? Will we have to endure another century of polluted waterways? The tunnels are incredibly expensive but it is highly likely that they will eliminate nearly all CSO releases, right? Does DC Water's proposal offer the same assurance? Basically, is there anything more substantive I can read re DC Water's proposal?

Thank you!

by Todd on Jun 25, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

@Todd, you can find more details at or feel free to contact us at

by DC Water on Jun 26, 2012 8:20 am • linkreport

@Mike: I was going to raise that issue too. I'm not an engineer but have worked with enough civil engineers to know that permeable pavement clogs over time, making them impervious in a few years. Also, permeable asphalt is often installed incorrectly as inexperienced workers over-compact it.

I would like to see the focus shift to decentralized stormwater management. Think Portland's "Green Streets", which can accommodate - I believe - 100% of street runoff during a 500-year storm. It would be great if the city adopted similar standards that could be implemented during streetscape improvements, just as bike lanes are often implemented during projects.

I myself want to get a rain barrel soon.

by Michael on Jun 26, 2012 2:12 pm • linkreport

I was on DC Water's Board when we decided to exclude impervious areas in the transportation right of way in the initial implementation of impervious area rates (IACs). DC Water had a lot on its plate to implement IACs for tens of thousands of properties inside Squares and Lots, many of which had never had a water meter (e.g. Parking lots). It was a matter of expediency, to get the program started as quickly as reasonably possible. I expect DC Water to revisit the issue -- directly or indirectly -- in due course. In fact, the Board's committee on retail rates had a very preliminary discussion this morning (even referring to this GGW blog).

by David J Bardin on Jun 26, 2012 5:20 pm • linkreport

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