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Impact-Based Stormwater Fee Structure Encourages Low-Impact Solutions, Funds Infrastructure

By Tom Arrandale, correspondent for Governing

Any municipal utility expects customers to howl whenever water and sewer rates go up. But Philadelphia businesses have been grumbling for two years about their rates. That's because some monthly bills have climbed thousands of dollars to take into account all the property covered by rooftops, parking lots and other impermeable pavement. Those hardened surfaces shed rain as fast as it falls to the ground, and Philadelphia's redesigned stormwater fees target the properties that contribute most of the pollutant-laced water that flows straight to the city's 79,000 storm drains.

The Philadelphia Water Department, however, is willing to cut commercial customers a lucrative break. In fact, the city will forgive the entire bill if owners build artificial wetlands, plant trees, install rain barrels, cultivate rooftop gardens, lay down permeable pavement or add other water-absorbing features that restore the landscape's natural capacity to absorb summertime cloudbursts and soak up winter snowmelt.

Philadelphia is committed to refurbishing 9,500 acres of paved lands as part of a $2 billion plan for complying with federal orders to fix combined drainage and sewage systems that wash raw sewage and contaminant-laced runoff into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. For four decades, the city funded its stormwater sewers with monthly fees based on how much municipal drinking water a home or business consumed. But in 2010, the water agency deployed GIS imaging to determine how much of a parcel had been paved over by impervious structures. Two years from now, Philadelphia will finish phasing in fees that require landowners whose properties shed the most stormwater to pick up an even bigger share of the tab.


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