Donald Gregory didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the Wyoming Valley stormwater fee when he started hearing about it last fall.
Gregory, who grows hay on 100 acres next to Gifford Pinchot State Forest, thought that he might be paying $60 a year.
But that was the homeowner rate. Gregory’s bill turned out to be $1,400.
“It’s a back-breaker,” he said.
The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority, which handles wastewater treatment for Wilkes-Barre and its suburbs, starting billing residents of 32 municipalities for stormwater management at the beginning of January.
The authority charges a fee on every property based on the amount of impervious surfaces — roofs, pavement and the like — that don’t absorb rainwater.
The runoff picks up fertilizer, sediment and oil as it rushes toward the nearest storm drain or creek, and eventually to the Susquehanna River.
The fees will be used to create wetlands and forested stream buffers, restore streams, lay permeable pavement, and make other infrastructure improvements.
In short, the fees will reduce the damage and nutrient loss from stormwater.
The Wyoming Valley is required to manage stormwater under its federal storm sewer permit.
But pollution reductions have become more urgent as Pennsylvania lurches toward a 2025 deadline in the ambitious Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
If the state falls short, the Environmental Protection Agency could tighten permitting requirements and otherwise punish the state.
These stormwater obligations have been around for some years, but the Wyoming Valley’s response is fairly new for Pennsylvania.
Municipal stormwater authorities were allowed under a 2013 state law, and about 20 local governments in Pennsylvania have created one.
All but two of these have been cities or towns like Lancaster, Chambersburg, New Castle and Philadelphia.
But with the Wyoming Valley and a proposed authority in York County, stormwater authorities could soon serve — and charge fees on — a lot more farmers and rural people.
Some, like Gregory, fear their local governments have run amok, but supporters of stormwater authorities say the programs do important work that can easily be overlooked till it’s too late.
What Is an Authority?
A stormwater authority is a fairly flexible institution.
It can serve one municipality or several working together. It can be a standalone entity, or its responsibilities can be folded into any number of local departments.
In other states, where the laws are written differently, an authority can be known as a stormwater utility.
And while an impervious-surface fee is the most common funding mechanism, it’s not the only one.
Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas, allocates a fraction of its sales tax to stormwater. That means the tourists help pay for flood control.
No matter the form, an authority provides a dedicated funding stream for stormwater management.
Absent an authority, money for stormwater systems often comes out of a local government’s general fund, where it has to compete with more visible needs like potholes and policing.
“Until you have a flood, nobody thinks about stormwater or the infrastructure,” said Warren Campbell, a civil engineering professor at Western Kentucky University.
Campbell has identified almost 1,700 stormwater utilities in the United States and more than 20 in Canada.
The first were launched in Bellevue, Washington, and Boulder, Colorado, in 1974.
Minnesota has shown an unusual verve for the utilities — it’s got nearly 200 of them — but Florida, Washington and other Midwestern states have caught the bug as well.
Compared to those states, Pennsylvania is still testing the waters.
Besides clear statutory power to create stormwater authorities, there’s no clear reason that authorities catch on in some places but not others, Campbell said.
What is clear is that most authorities are in populous areas, and they are becoming more common.
Almost 60 percent of stormwater utilities were in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, and many had been established within the past 15 years, a 2017 Brookings Institution analysis of Campbell’s data found.
Campbell emphasized that stormwater authorities can be found in communities of all sizes, from sprawling Los Angeles to a Florida hamlet of just 88 people.
In short, stormwater authorities may not begin popping up in rural Pennsylvania, but that’s not out of the question either.
The state Department of Environmental Protection recommends municipalities collaborate on stormwater projects to save money and increase efficiency.
That’s happening around the state — from the Wyoming Valley to Blair, Lebanon and York counties.
Still, the state can’t tell municipalities to create a stormwater authority.
“These decisions are, and should be, local decisions,” said Elizabeth Rementer, the agency’s press secretary.
Not a Rain Tax
Critics disparage stormwater fees as a “rain tax.”
Advocates bristle at the term.
After all, it’s impervious surface, not precipitation per se, that forms the basis of the assessment.
And technically speaking, stormwater authorities generally charge fees, not taxes.
Fees can be charged on all properties, even tax-exempt ones.
Because rain falls on everyone, supporters say, everyone should have to pay for stormwater management.
It’s “the most equitable distribution of costs among property owners,” said Donna Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority.
North Lebanon Township, Lebanon County — one of the state’s two rural municipalities with a stormwater fee — is a good example of how the fees are calculated.
The average impervious area on a residential property in the township is 3,755 square feet.
That number became the fee schedule’s base unit, called the equivalent residential unit or ERU.
All single-family homes are counted as one ERU and billed at $40.14 per year.
That’s lower than the national average of $64 from Campbell’s research.
All other properties in North Lebanon are charged based on the number of ERUs on their property.
On farms, the impervious surfaces related to the house — roof, patio, swimming pool— are collectively assigned one ERU to keep things fair. The barn roof area is calculated separately.
Farmers may not like the fees, but it’s often the tax-exempt entities like churches and school districts that mount the strongest resistance to stormwater authorities, Campbell said.
Same goes for airports, which have a large amount of impervious surface.
Queen City Airport sued Allentown last year over the $71,200 annual stormwater bill the city sent, according to The Morning Call.
In the Wyoming Valley, the Luzerne County government must pay stormwater fees for its airport, prison and courthouse.
The county government qualifies for a 40 percent fee reduction because it has its own storm sewer permit.
The county and state are the only entities in the region that meet that criterion, according to the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.
The paper reported that the county manager was seeking ways to eliminate the county’s payment, but Gillis said credits are capped at 45% to ensure each property owner pays equitably into the program.
In Lehman Township, where Gregory lives, almost every property received a credit based on site attributes that reduce runoff, Gillis said.
Those attributes include rain barrels and stream buffers.
Still, Gregory thinks the fee structure is unfair.
Between roofs, sidewalks and roads, towns have a high amount of impervious surfaces, but homeowners are only charged $60 a year.
His hay land absorbs a lot of rainwater, but he is being charged more than 20 times as much as the homeowners.
“The farmers are saving water. Their land absorbs water. They’re renewing the water table. We should be applauded,” he said.
The problem, of course, is that barns, silos and outbuildings can add up to a lot of impervious surface, even if most of the farm’s acreage absorbs water.
Even then, resident Mike Stash argued that the fee doesn’t make sense for rural areas.
Rural Luzerne County has few storm drains, and in many cases, he said, the topography channels stormwater into wetlands, not streams.
“We’re frustrated because it’s a blatant government overreach,” said Stash, who lives in the town of Dallas.
Stormwater authorities can be a particularly hard sell in rural areas, according to a 2005 report from the New England Environmental Finance Center.
If an existing sewer authority is administering the fee, as in the Wyoming Valley, the agency can end up charging rural residents for stormwater even though they aren’t connected to the sewer system.
One in 10 residential properties in the Wyoming Valley program is only being charged for stormwater.
Some authorities, unwilling to develop a separate billing system for rural parcels, have limited the fee to more urban areas.
But that strategy could penalize the smart-growth approach of concentrating development in certain areas, the finance center said.
Gillis, the sanitary authority spokeswoman, contended that rural landowners benefit from cleaner water along with everyone else.
“Under the regional approach, a pollution reduction practice in one town consequently helps all (participating) municipalities meet the mandated requirements,” she said.
A County Plan
While the Wyoming Valley project covers only part of Luzerne County, York County planners think a stormwater authority could be a solution for their entire county.
The settings in both counties are quite different.
Where the Wyoming Valley authority spills beyond the Wilkes-Barre suburbs, it takes in sparsely farmed mountain country.
York County, with 2,000 farms covering a quarter-million acres, would hold the largest number of farms of any authority in the state.
York is Pennsylvania’s second-largest source of Chesapeake Bay pollution, and county planners have said the authority would help farmers with conservation projects and work through the backlog of farmers needing conservation plans.
Farmers would be charged the homeowner rate of $48.90 a year, plus $9 per tillable acre.
The per-acre fee would be waived for farmers who have a conservation plan or are on the waiting list to get one.
Still, some farmers saw the fee as heavy handed.
“The rural communities and the farm community, we’re drawing a line in the sand,” David Warner, a farmer and township supervisor, said last year. “We’ve had enough.”
After holding several public meetings on the proposal last fall, the county planning commission created more options besides a full-blown authority for the county commissioners to consider.
These include additional staffing at the conservation district and the possibility for municipalities to form their own stormwater authorities within the county.
The commissioners can pick one strategy, mix and match, or do nothing.
“What we heard is ‘options,’” said Lindsay Gerner, a senior planner at the planning commission.
The planners will soon be presenting their final report to the county commissioners.
In Luzerne County, Gregory felt blindsided by the fee in part because of its size, and in part because he thought he had already done his part.
When Gregory updated his conservation plan a few years ago — a process that cost him thousands of dollars — his USDA plan writer told him he was in compliance with the Chesapeake Bay regulations.
As a result, he didn’t think the stormwater fee, enacted in response to bay mandates, should apply to him.
But farm plans meet different regulations than the stormwater fee does, even though both are tied to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
“Although the landowners may have plans that address nutrient and sediment runoff, we cannot preclude a local municipality (from) assessing fees for impervious surface coverage or stormwater runoff associated with that impervious surface,” said Denise Coleman, USDA’s state conservationist in Pennsylvania.
Though the stormwater fee has already been implemented, residents are trying to overturn it.
Stash and other opponents of the stormwater program have contacted a Maryland attorney who fought that state’s stormwater fee program.
State Rep. Aaron Kaufer has even asked Pennsylvania’s attorney general to file an injunction against the Environmental Protection Agency over stormwater requirements.
His unfunded-mandate claim seems quixotic, given the large number of stormwater authorities already in existence across the country.
Still, with such authorities just gaining a foothold in Pennsylvania, Stash thinks many officials could be watching the Wyoming Valley.
“If it happens here, then it’s going to go elsewhere,” Stash said.
Neighboring states offer mixed signals on that point.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan did succeed in weakening stormwater fee requirements in his state, but New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law allowing stormwater authorities last month.
At the urging of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, farms will be exempt from stormwater fees if they are enrolled in the state’s preferential tax assessment program for farmland.
Campbell, the professor, knows all too well the ferocity of opposition that can mount against stormwater proposals.
He was the city hydrologist in Huntsville, Alabama, when the city’s flood mitigation committee recommended the creation of a stormwater utility.
A small group of people erupted in opposition. To Campbell, they acted like the city had proposed killing families’ first-born children.
“It was just totally out of proportion to what we were proposing,” he said.
That experience convinced him that local governments need to spend a lot of time educating residents before creating a stormwater authority.
Resistance is inevitable, so those who will benefit most from the fee need to contact their elected officials so they don’t think everyone is opposed, he said.
Stormwater fees do have their supporters.
Last April, months before any bills were even mailed, the Wyoming Valley project received a Governor’s Award for Local Government Excellence.
Specialized authorities are not the only tool local governments have for managing stormwater, but they could come to serve a growing number of farms in Pennsylvania.
After all, rain is going to keep falling on houses and barns, and it’s going to need somewhere to go.