Charlottesville Stormwater Utility Fee Won’t Help Save the Bay (Part One: The Problem)

Businesses, as well as homeowners, often maintain huge lawns that take an enormous toll on the environment—and ultimately humans. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Businesses, as well as homeowners, often maintain huge lawns that take an enormous toll on the environment—and ultimately humans. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

© Marlene A. Condon

Earlier this year, the Democrat-controlled Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County, with the help of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, successfully fought the EPA’s attempt to regulate storm water flow into Accotink Creek.

The EPA was trying to keep the creek from being drowned in sediment from storm water runoff. The board was trying to keep from using taxpayer dollars to adequately fix this problem that was totally caused by inappropriate development.

The sediment from Fairfax County storm water runoff does not just impair Accotink Creek. It affects the Potomac River, which the creek enters, and the Chesapeake Bay, which the Potomac flows into.

Therefore the county of Fairfax and the state of Virginia effectively ignored a moral duty to preserve a natural resource that has been historically one of the most productive estuaries on the planet—an economically important source of food and recreation (fishing, birding, boating) for all Virginians.

In Charlottesville, the Rivanna River feeds the James River, which flows to the Chesapeake Bay. Because of the huge amount of impervious surface area that people maintain on most properties, rainwater runs over the ground instead of soaking into it as would happen in natural landscapes.

The rainwater picks up pollutants, such as oil and grease from machinery as well as pesticides and fertilizers from yards, and is carried by ditches, drains, and pipes straight into local streams and rivers without the benefit of water treatment.

Thus virtually all of the pollution created in Charlottesville and picked up by rainwater ends up ultimately in the Bay. The EPA has been trying for years to get governments and citizens in the Bay watershed to voluntarily take steps to limit adverse effects upon the Bay.

People create the situations that result in storm water runoff, so they need to take responsibility for fixing them (unlike Fairfax, that shirked its duty). In Charlottesville, officials are giving the impression that they are taking steps to address the deleterious effects of runoff on the Bay by instituting a fee system, which Albemarle County may soon emulate.

The city will charge citizens for the amount of impervious surface area (such as rooftops, driveways, parking lots) on every developed property other than those built and maintained by government. The fee—referred to as the “rainwater tax” by some folks—is part of the city’s Water Resources Protection Program (WRPP).

The point of the WRPP is “to address Charlottesville’s storm water related challenges in a comprehensive and economically and environmentally sustainable manner.” Unfortunately, the main point of the fee is simply to raise money to resize or rehabilitate existing pipes to remove storm water from impervious areas more quickly.

This means polluted water will be moved to the Bay more quickly, which means the fee simply enables people to continue to harm it. As too often happens, local government officials are not attacking the root cause of a problem, but instead taking the most expensive route to accommodate the problem.

As with the decision to spend a lot of money to build a new dam at Ragged Mountain instead of getting people to continue to reduce their water usage, local government officials have decided to spend a lot of money for construction work instead of getting people to change their landscaping to minimize storm water runoff.

People can’t get rid of rooftops or perhaps even parking lots, but they can replace most of their impervious landscaping. If the City took the intelligent route, they would discourage the societal push for artificial landscapes that are overly manicured and sterile, lacking the life forms necessary to keep them functioning as the natural world is meant to do.

Right now, non-environmentally friendly landscapes are enabled by laws and regulations that forbid (city “weed” ordinances, suburban covenants) or discourage (county land-use regs) the nature-friendly landscaping that would not only make land in the Bay watershed permeable, but also perfectly functional without the use of pesticides and excessive amounts of fertilizer.

Consider that lawn and turf grass is now considered the largest crop grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—“more than 3.8 million acres covering a staggering 9.5 percent of the watershed’s total land area. Turf cover now exceeds total pasture cover (7.7%), hay/alfalfa acres (7.4%) and the acreage of row crops (9.2%—corn, soybean, wheat) grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.” (

Farmers are used to getting blamed for causing many of the problems affecting the Bay, but finally some scientists are recognizing that non-farmers (i.e., homeowners) are just as guilty by their cultivation of a turf “crop.” As reported in the same paper:

About 19 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients are used each year (mostly herbicides to kill otherwise fine-looking “weeds”). These pesticides are reaching local streams and rivers. According to USGS monitoring data, one or more pesticides were detected in 99% of urban streams, and one out of every five samples exceeded water quality standards to protect aquatic life.

Our compacted lawns produce extra runoff to the Bay. Thus, if we truly want to save the Chesapeake Bay, we can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. We must face the reality that every person who maintains more than a minimum amount of lawn for relaxing—especially one that is a thick carpet of grass grown as a monoculture—is contributing to the continued impairment of the Bay.

It’s unbelievable that some government agencies, universities, and lawn care companies claim that lawns are “green.” Here are just some of the reasons that a lawn can never be considered environmentally friendly:

A lawn consists of one or more nonnative (i.e. invasive) grasses. To maintain the green color of the grass, a lawn tends to be over-watered and over-fertilized (a source of nutrient runoff).

People are told that a lawn should not contain “weeds” or insects, thus they apply poisonous herbicides and insecticides.

Continual mowing throughout the growing season is a huge source of air and water pollution from engine exhaust.

The continual mowing, week after week, year after year, compacts the soil (especially if it has a high clay content), thus making a lawn a prime source of storm water runoff.

If lawns were permeable (as the city of Charlottesville apparently believes since it plans to only charge a fee on hardscaped surfaces), lawn care companies would not need to sell aeration and dethatching services in an attempt to make lawns permeable for the benefit of the grass roots.

However, the degree to which a lawn care company can even make a lawn temporarily permeable is minimal. Manmade aeration consists of making holes just a few inches deep (as opposed to the depth of wildlife-performed aeration), leaving the compacted soil below that depth to act as a barrier preventing further penetration of water. Thus a lawn does little to hold back storm water runoff.

At its web site, the city boasts that the Stormwater Utility Ordinance is truly a partnership between local government personnel and leaders/partners within the community. It then immediately names numerous conservation-related organizations that support its fee system. This is exactly what Charlottesville and Albemarle County officials did to “sell” the need for the new Ragged Mountain Dam to area taxpayers.

It’s truly puzzling that the city, in concert with all of these conservation-minded groups, could have totally overlooked lawns as a serious contributor to the storm water problems facing this area as well as the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also deeply disturbing.

Next time: Part 2, The Solution: Changing Minds, Changing Laws, and Changing Landscapes.


  1. We would like to offer the following clarification to some points made in this article:

    • The stormwater utility fee has been established to fund a comprehensive Water Resources Protection Program (WRPP) that addresses several key goals, including water quality improvement and pollution reduction goals for local streams as well as the Chesapeake Bay. To portray the program as intended to simply fund stormwater pipe upgrades and repairs is inaccurate. There is a clear understanding and acknowledgement on the part of the City that the reduction of stormwater volume is the preferred method of reducing pollutant inputs to our receiving waterways. As a result, the installation of green infrastructure practices and the retrofitting of City properties to improve the quality and reduce the quantity of stormwater leaving them are vital components of the program. That said, there is a real and justifiable need to maintain the existing public infrastructure which is a valuable city asset that contributes to public safety. As we engage in that endeavor, the City will be looking for ways to integrate water quality improvement goals with drainage system upgrades.

    • For many years prior to the stormwater utility proposal (and we anticipate for many years to come) city officials have been working on one of the root causes of the problems – public understanding and awareness of water quality cause and effect. A successful stormwater program that results in water quality improvements is largely dependent on community level land use practices and public engagement and participation. These are components of the City’s program that will continue to be a high priority moving forward.

    • The City recognizes that while impervious surfaces have the greatest impact on and link to stream health in urban areas, managed and compacted turf/lawn areas certainly are not entirely pervious and do indeed contribute stormwater runoff volume and pollutants, especially excessive nutrient loads. However, for the purposes of determining the stormwater utility fee, including turf/lawn areas at this time was determined not to be practical. Contrary to your contention in the article, the City and area conservation organizations have not totally overlooked lawns as a contributor to our local and regional stormwater and water quality issues. You will find educational information to this effect on the City’s website at And for years the City has been an active member of the Rivanna Regional Stormwater Education Partnership, which focuses on consistent and clear messages about stream and Bay-friendly day-to-day practices such as lawn care that are consistent with the practices you espouse in this article. The WRPP will be exploring ways to promote and incentivize practices that reduce the impact of lawns and turf areas to our local streams and the Bay.

    Feel free to reach out with questions about the stormwater utility and the WRPP by sending an email to [email protected].

    • Lest anyone think I didn’t do my homework, Kristel Riddervold okayed the publication of this quote sent from her to me after publication of this column:

      “I apologize that circumstances did not permit me to provide responses to your last inquiries to my office about the City’s stormwater utility for use in your article.”

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