How Many Utilities?

Aug. 20, 2014

Few entities have been so maligned and misunderstood as stormwater utilities. Too many of them have been put down before they’ve had a chance to get going, felled by legal challenges from homeowners and businesses alike. Although utilities can be an effective way to generate money for stormwater services, infrastructure, and maintenance—especially as property tax revenues shrink and it becomes more difficult to get adequate support from the general tax fund—they haven’t caught on as rapidly as many of us expected they would.

The first stormwater utilities in the US appeared in the early 1970s, and by 1994 EPA estimated that there were roughly 100 nationwide. In the very first issue of Stormwater magazine in late 2000, we relied on the best guesses of experts, who put the number at just over 400, although there was no comprehensive survey of utilities at that time. Some practitioners predicted there would be 2,500 stormwater utilities in the US within the decade.

Now, finally, there is an accurate count, and it falls far short of that prediction. For the past several years, Western Kentucky University has been conducting surveys to determine the number and type of stormwater utilities in the US. Warren Campbell, who teaches floodplain management at the university, and his students have uncovered some very useful—and surprising, and sometimes disheartening—facts about the way stormwater is funded.

The 2013 survey identified 1,417 stormwater utilities in the US. The smallest is in a community with a population of only 88 (Indian Creek Village, FL), and the largest is in Los Angeles, CA, with more than 3 million residents. The average population size for communities with stormwater utilities is 73,900, and the median population size is 19,200.

The bad news, though, is that a dozen states have no stormwater utilities at all, including states that might benefit the most. Eight years after Hurricane Katrina, Campbell points out in the introduction to the latest survey report, neither Louisiana nor Mississippi—the two hardest-hit states–has a utility. Likewise, the three states that bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy—New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut–have not a single stormwater utility among them.

In some cases legislative barriers make it difficult to create them. Property owners in many places have objected to utility fees, calling them taxes and declaring them illegal because the city or county has no authority to levee a new tax. A 2011 federal law stating that stormwater fees are not taxes and that federal agencies are not exempt from paying has helped a bit toward changing that trend, but legal challenges to new utilities are still commonplace.

If your community is contemplating a utility, or if you want to see how prevalent they are in your state or region, the survey is well worth a look. It contains detailed information on the rates set by different utilities, as well as maps showing their locations and the number of stormwater utilities in each state. They survey report is available as a pdf file at

Have you had experience in setting up a stormwater utility? Leave a comment below.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines. 

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