Stormwater Fees From Federal Property

March 1, 2011

The federal government is going to be paying for your work-in a way. In January, the president signed a law requiring the federal government to pay state and local stormwater management fees just as homeowners and private businesses do-something from which federal property has previously been exempt.

The business of collecting stormwater fees has a controversial history, even without the question of whether federal facilities should pay them. In places where they are collected, though, the money helps pay for work that keeps erosion and sediment control professionals employed. The mandates under NPDES Phase II stormwater permits to control construction-site runoff and post-construction runoff, especially, create a tremendous amount of work.

Federal facilities-among them, military bases, large office complexes, and prisons-leave a large footprint. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, about 5% of the land is federally owned. Although not all of it is developed, and therefore won’t necessarily pay stormwater fees, that’s a significant amount of real estate, especially in this sensitive watershed. (Ben Cardin, the senator who co-sponsored the bill, is from Maryland.) Nationwide, according to Nancy Sutley, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the federal government owns about 500,000 buildings.

The History Behind Stormwater Fees
As more stormwater programs have been set up over the last decade or so, they’ve needed new and steady sources of funding. A share of the general tax fund wasn’t necessarily enough to cover everything that needed to be done.

The first stormwater utilities were set up in the 1970s, and for years there were only a handful in the country. By the mid-1990s, the EPA estimated about 100 existed nationwide. When NPDES Phase II took effect in 2003, however, many smaller cities that had never had much of a stormwater program-or perhaps had had a program that was a small component of a larger public works department, with employees taking on concurrent duties-suddenly needed to meet a host of new requirements. They needed more staff, more infrastructure, and better inventories of the infrastructure they already had. They needed to reach out to the public and educate people about water quality. They needed to prevent illicit discharges to the storm drains. They needed money.

Among the six “minimum control measures” of Phase II, two always loomed large and were expensive to implement: the requirements to control construction-site runoff and post-construction runoff.

For many programs, stormwater utilities seemed like a logical and fair solution. If your property generates runoff, you pay a portion of the cost to deal with it. In reality, though, it wasn’t that simple, and the controversy surrounding many of the early stormwater utilities was ferocious. Quite a few of the early attempts were struck down by lawsuits, which claimed the charges were not a fee for stormwater services but rather a tax that municipalities were not authorized to levy. Today, however, stormwater utilities are a widely accepted form of revenue-either replacing or augmenting any money a program receives from the general fund-and thousands exist nationwide.

Most programs base stormwater fees on the amount of impervious surface a property has-and therefore on how much runoff it generates. Some charge more for certain types of land uses, and some, for simplicity, charge a flat fee for certain types of properties like single-family homes. How much a federal facility will actually pay depends on the rate structure of the jurisdiction in which it’s located. The District of Columbia, which has many federal buildings and had been trying unsuccessfully before the bill was passed to collect stormwater fees from them, expects about $2.6 million in additional revenue.

What does your community stand to gain from this new law? E-mail me at [email protected]. You can find the full text of the law at; search for S.3481.   

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

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