The Salt Lake Tribune
BYLINE: By Katie Drake The Salt Lake Tribune
Cities that were waiting for a rainy day to deal with new rules on keeping storm water clean have discovered the storm has finally arrived.
Now they’re scrambling to raise fees to comply with the regulations — and avoid risking hefty penalties.
“The only choice is to comply or not to comply, and if you don’t, you pay,” said West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson.
Now her City Council is rushing to raise the storm water fee from $1.80 to $3.65 in order to hire two new staff members and purchase equipment to bring the city into compliance. The workers will spend their time sending cameras down each of the city’s storm water lines to check for debris, as well as maintaining and upgrading all the valves, catch basins and other infrastructure that keeps storm water clean as it enters the Jordan River.
And West Jordan is not alone. Sandy is in the final stretch of a three-year plan to raise fees from $5 to $6, and Riverton’s will jump from $4 to $7 by 2014. All storm water fees are based on “equivalent residential units,” so larger properties and businesses will pay even more. The fees vary by city based on individual water systems and how much of the pipe needs to be replaced.
Storm water enters natural waterways untreated, said Rhonda Thiele of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The standards may require infrastructure improvements to keep debris, chemicals and silt from destroying river banks, fisheries and wetlands where storm water enters the ecosystem.
Cities have known about the new requirements since 2002, but the compliance deadline was extended to Feb. 1, 2012, said Thiele. Now she is auditing the 78 Utah municipalities that fall under the regulations, which are set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by Utah’s DEQ.
The audit examines six factors, from public education to construction-site runoff. The eventual goal, Thiele said, is that only pure rainwater and snowmelt flow into natural waterways. Most cities aren’t there yet, but as long as they are making progress, DEQ is usually willing to work with them, Thiele said.
But it’s a different story for those who fail to show progress on implementing major tenants of the plan, Thiele said. DEQ is still determining the penalty for those who aren’t making a diligent effort, but it is likely to involve hefty fines, she said.
Full compliance can take several years, said Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall. The city adopted a storm water fee about six years ago, but only about 75 percent of its system is in compliance. Wall is hoping the city’s consistent effort will reflect favorably on its audit.
“Nobody likes fees and taxes, but you have to maintain your infrastructure,” Wall said. “An emergency is more costly than construction, and nobody wants to get spanked by the EPA.”
Others have not planned so far in advance, said Jennifer Scott, district director for Rep. Jason Chaffetz. His office has been flooded with requests for help in complying this year. Many attribute their failure to act to the tough economy, while others were waiting to see if the mandates changed, Scott said.
“This came up several years ago in West Jordan,” Scott said, adding that as a resident she was initially against the fees. “We felt like if we didn’t have to do it right now, let’s not be raising taxes for something that is years and years away.”
Several cities, such as Provo and Orem, got started early and were able to secure grants, Scott said, while the state’s largest municipalities — Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the Utah Department of Transportation — have been required to comply since the late ’90s. But as the program has expanded to smaller cities, it has proved challenging, especially for those with old water systems and high growth, Scott said.
West Jordan — which has miles of 70-year-old pipe — faces both of those challenges, according to Johnson. While the city bristles at a larger government agency setting its funding priorities, Johnson feels the battle is not worth fighting. A lawsuit challenging the mandates is unlikely to succeed, would cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate, and might result in a loss of federal aid for roads and schools.
While residents are bristling at being asked to pay more, most are resigned, said West Jordan resident Doug Court. He first thought the fee was a money grab by the city, but since learning more about the requirements, said he understands the city’s conundrum.
“It’s not that I don’t think the city isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do,” Court said, “I’m just skeptical that it is necessary. Homeowners just plain feel like we’re being nickel-and-dimed to death.”
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