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Stormwater program an unfunded state/federal mandate

City of Albany Sewer Division Supervisor George Haggerty checks out a mound of silt that has built up alongside a sewer system outstructure on Ninth Avenue. The city is in the process of implementing a mandated stormwater management program. (Carlton Fletcher)

City of Albany Sewer Division Supervisor George Haggerty checks out a mound of silt that has built up alongside a sewer system outstructure on Ninth Avenue. The city is in the process of implementing a mandated stormwater management program. (Carlton Fletcher)

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A drainage ditch that runs underneath Westover Road takes most of the rainwater runoff from businesses in the area to a nearby holding pond. A blockage of the ditch led to recent flooding along Westover. (Carlton Fletcher)

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A holding pond adjacent to the intersection of Westtown Road and Gordon Avenue holds stormwater runoff from surrounding residences. A lack of manpower and funding to maintain the structure has allowed significant plant growth in the pond. (Carlton Fletcher)

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From left, city of Albany Engineer Bruce Maples, Sewer System Superintendent Ann Zimmer-Shepherd, Project Manager John Shepherd, Deputy Public Works Director Richard Bramlett and Public Works Director Phil Roberson are among a group of city officials working to implement a stormwater management program. (Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — The average citizen may find it difficult to follow all the technical jargon, scientific data and acronyms city officials use when they talk about their pending stormwater management program.

But if there’s one thing even the least informed among us understands, it’s impact on the pocketbook.

“Under the plan we’ve developed, everyone pays their fair share,” Albany Public Works Director Phil Roberson said shortly after the Albany City Commission approved Phase III of the city’s stormwater plan. “It’s not just the property owners; this is a user fee. All users — residents, businesses, nonprofits — pay for their usage.

“We’ve heard some complaints already from people who don’t understand this process, but if we look at it in another way, a way that makes more sense to them, I think they’ll see a little more clearly. If we didn’t collect this user fee, which is going to mean an increase of about $2 a month per Equivalent Residential Unit, it would take an additional 3.137 mills of taxes to pay for the program. That’s an additional $4.8 million.”

The stormwater program comes to the city as an unfunded mandate from the state’s Environmental Protection Division. Cities of 50,000 residents or more must, within strict state and federal guidelines and deadlines, create an environmentally viable drainage system that separates rain runoff from water that is delivered to the city’s wastewater treatment plant via its sanitary sewer system.

Officials in Washington and Atlanta started talking about this issue decades ago, with passage of the federal Clean Water Act. Municipalities have been implementing elements of their various stormwater plans in phases over time since then, but now the moment of truth is almost at hand.

“It’s like that Jefferson Street/Philema Road interchange that was in the paper this week,” City Engineer Bruce Maples said. “They started talking about making that dangerous interchange safer back when I was in college, in 1983. It’s been 30 years, and now they’re finally doing something about it.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency was authorized to officially address the growing problem of pollution in American waterways with passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. That legislation addressed the release of pollutants directly into the nation’s waterways.

The EPA, through state-oriented EPD agencies, continued its water cleanup efforts over the next two-plus decades before directly addressing non-point pollution sources — such as rainfall, drainage ditches and other stormwater elements — with 1999 legislation.

Local municipalities were directed by EPD to start developing stormwater management plans in 2004, and by the end of 2005, cities were required to start making regular reports. Last Dec. 6, municipalities were directed to prepare for the implementation of their plans.

“There are three very significant things we are trying to accomplish with this plan,” Roberson, who has been with the city since 1974, said. “We are trying to remove as many pollutants as possible from our system. There are regulatory — compliance — issues we must meet. And we want to mitigate localized flooding.”

The elements of Albany’s sewer system make up an expansive network of miles and miles of streets, sewer pipes, drainage ditches, holding ponds and the like, some of it dating back to the late 1800s. Management of the 500 miles of city streets and associated drainage components, 330 miles of sewer pipes, 1,200 drainage inlets and catch basins, 10,000 drainage structures, 200 miles of drainage ditches and 100-plus publicly-owned holding ponds is a costly proposition.

“In addition to the construction and maintenance of those structures, we have members of our work force dedicated to stormwater, ditch maintenance and other associated projects,” Sewer Systems Superintendent Ann Zimmer-Shepherd said. “And the more our city grows, the more impervious surfaces we add, and the more storm runoff we’ll have.”

The city’s plan, developed over the years with the help of consultants who are now part of Savannah-based Ecological Planning Group, calls for the division of the city into roughly 85,000 Equivalent Residential Units of 2,700 square feet of impervious surface, based on the typical single-family residence. Charge for each ERU will amount to somewhere around $5.50 to $6 per month. Since the city implemented a flat sanitary sewer fee of $3 in 2006 and has since combined that with a stormwater fee that is currently at a base monthly rate of $8.77, the monthly stormwater fee is set to go up only around $2 a month.

Roberson said the city’s sanitary sewer fees are among the state’s bottom third in terms of cost.

“The fees will be separated on monthly Water, Gas & Light bills,” Zimmer-Shepherd said. “The base sanitary sewer fee will remain $5.08, and the stormwater fee — which has increased to $3.69 since 2006 — will come out somewhere between $5.50 and $6.

“Someone who is paying an average sanitary sewer fee of around $27 now should see an increase only up to around $29.”

Non-single-family residential properties (including businesses) will be individually assessed based on their unique impervious footprint. Credits of up to 50 percent may be obtained through development of property greenspace, education programs, retention ponds and green-based infrastructure.

More than 50 Georgia municipalities, including Americus, Camilla, Valdosta, Warner Robins and Douglas, are already utilizing a similar program.

“Albany will be the largest city in South Georgia and one of the largest cities in the state to put its stormwater utility program in place,” Courtney Reich, president of Ecological Planning Group, said. “As part of Phase III of the process, we’ll help them identify their needs, help them inform the public, help them develop a billing account and help them set up a credit policy that will allow customers to reduce their fees by mitigating stormwater runoff.

“I think you’ll see the kind of stormwater utility Albany is developing in every community in the state soon. Smaller communities will develop them as they become more urbanized.”

Albany officials have already developed a wish list of sewer and stormwater projects they hope to complete with funds from the stormwater fees and dedicated sales tax collections. Those projects will vastly improve the low-lying city’s not insignificant drainage and flooding problems. The $12 million list is, Maples notes, just a start.

“Of course, that list doesn’t include work on the Holloway Outfall or the Eighth Avenue Basin,” the city engineer said. “The estimated cost for work we need to do at Holloway is $50 million. At Eighth Avenue, it’s $80 million. We have lists that we’ll keep working on as long as we have the funding. But in reality, this process is never-ending.”