The Stormwater Story
WE'RE PREPARING FOR A STORMWATERY FUTURE.
After Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, a lot of people became aware of stormwater as an issue for the first time. But here at Greater Augusta Utility District, we’ve been responsible for proper collection and treatment of stormwater ever since the City of Augusta turned it over to us in 1958. Today, GAUD manages stormwater in the 16.5 square miles of the Augusta Urban Compact Area, and we’ve made great progress in handling it right.
While extremely heavy rains have always caused flooding and damage, the problem is magnified by the extensive paving of our modern cities. Rainwater falling on natural terrain used to soak into the earth or run into rivers and eventually the ocean. Which was fine before we added oil, chemicals, and other pollutants to our environment—things we do not want running into our waterways.
Augusta has a long history of draining water from structures and streets. Back in the day, to avoid the high cost of installing separate pipes, wastewater and stormwater (rain/snowmelt) were often combined. This made good sense...until it rained a lot and the pipes overflowed into homes, streets or the river, carrying sewage along with the stormwater. This is now called “combined sewer overflow” (CSO), and is prohibited by environmental regulations. See drawing below.
Over 100 years later, we are still working to prevent CSO by either separating combined sewer and stormwater systems, or capturing the “first flush” before it overflows to the river. Once the storm passes, we then pump the “first flush” water to the wastewater treatment plant so it can be cleaned.
Since the early 1990’s, GAUD has invested millions of dollars to comply with EPA and Maine DEP CSO requirements. The most visible project is along the Rail Trail in Augusta, where you can see above ground concrete boxes that help flush a storage tank buried beneath the trail. In Mill Park, the buried tanks are invisible and have helped spur interest in improving this area. Our compliance efforts have made great progress, reducing sewer discharges to the Kennebec River by 90%, from 73 million gallons (MG) per year in 1989 to 7 MG per year in 2016.
Our 4th phase of CSO work, a one million gallon tank near our office on Williams Street and the Augusta Kennebec River boat landing, will be completed soon, with pump station upgrades completed in 2020. We are working with the Maine Municipal Bond Bank and Maine DEP to finance the project in such a way that the debt payments will start when other debt payments stop. We are pleased to have complied with expensive CSO regulations without litigation.
How do we currently charge for stormwater?
GAUD is the only utility district in Maine that handles water, wastewater and stormwater, so we have had to figure out how to bill for these three functions equitably ourselves, without reference to neighboring districts.
GAUD is also one of very few utility districts in the U.S. that still charges for catch basins (once the sole source of revenue), at $50.89 per month. In addition, we collect a monthly fee of $8.30 per ERU (Equivalent Residential Unit, the runoff impact of a typical single-family residential home’s footprint) from customers in the Augusta Compact Urban Area—residential, commercial, nonprofit and governmental. One ERU represents 2,700 square feet (SF) in Augusta.
The cost of compliance, operations and maintenance, however, is projected to exceed our current stormwater fees in the near future, unless we increase revenues. Our proposed new rates are designed to make up the difference and keep our budget balanced.
In order to determine the most equitable and sustainable way to charge for our increased stormwater costs, the GAUD Board of Trustees convened a Stormwater Workgroup (SWG) in May of 2017. In January of 2018, they made the following recommendations in a report to the Board:
- The Board of Trustees should engage a consultant to design a stormwater rate system that more accurately reflects actual stormwater-related costs.
- The GAUD Board should arrange a joint meeting of the Stormwater Workgroup with the Charter Review Committee to discuss how to clarify the boundaries of the GAUD district.
- Continue the practice of annual coordination between the Augusta Public Works Department and GAUD on capital improvements and maintenance planning
- Look at the impact of reallocating costs from old sewer pipe projects to the stormwater and sewer accounts in accordance with current practices.
The Board then created a Rate Subcommittee and worked with the City of Augusta to forecast costs and revenue from the various options. The Rate Subcommittee made an initial recommendation at the January, 2019 Board meeting, and developed a final recommendation at the March 25th Board meeting. GAUD held a Public Hearing about proposed new rates on May 20, 2019, and the new rates went into effect on July 1, 2019.
The Rate Subcommittee met again on July 8, 2019 to continue reviewing rates, and reported at the July 15 Trustees meeting that they had agreed to:
- Ratify a stormwater main extension policy that spells our the District’s financial contributions to new stormwater mains. This is covered by GAUD Policy 6, “Sewer Main Extensions.”
- Develop a geographic information system-based description of the sidewalks and city streets for which GAUD will bill the City for impervious area using ERUs (Equivalent Residential Units). The goal is to have this in place, with COA agreement, by the end of July, in time for our respective August planning sessions for the next fiscal year.
- Identify parcels that benefit from adjacent sewer or stormwater infrastructure, and consider readiness to serve fees consistent with the Charter, by the end of August.
- Reenergize the Charter committee to consider modifications to the Charter to include:
a. review territory description;
b. review Hallowell veto on sewer main extensions;
c. add language to allow Hallowell non-voting member to vote if voting member is absent; and
d. add language to make stormwater a “basic service,” failure to pay for which would allow shutting off drinking water service.