By Dirk Nies
Albemarle County is blessed with abundant, fresh water flowing through its 2,360 miles of streams and rivers. Alterations of the landscape and intensive land use have diminished their water quality, especially in highly urbanized areas. Much remedial work has been done in recent years to improve the health of these surface waters. Nevertheless, significant impairment of County water resources continues, with adverse effects that may be felt downstream as far away as the Chesapeake Bay.
Albemarle County’s Department of Water Resource Management is charged with overseeing the County’s surface and groundwater resources, protecting and restoring stream corridors, and generally preserving the integrity of our natural environment. Program costs for water use planning, land use regulation, capital projects, inspection and maintenance, and public education currently are running about $1.8 million annually.
The County water program is expected to expand significantly over the next decade and costs are forecast to increase by 375 percent to an estimated $6.8 million per year!
Why is this major expansion occurring? What is the County trying to achieve and is it achievable? Who is going to be most impacted by these changes? Where will increased services be located? Do we have the monetary and technical wherewithal? Is it cost-effective? What new administrative burdens will it place on the County and property owners? Can it be carried out in an equitable way? When fully implemented, will the County’s enhanced water programs make measurable and sustainable improvements in water quality and the integrity of our natural environment?
Mandated Enhancements to the Water Program
Ambitious goals to fully restore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay by 2025 have been issued by EPA under the Clean Water Act. These federal regulations are driving changes at the County level, as states and localities within the Bay watershed scramble to comply with these largely unfunded mandates.
On December 29, 2010, EPA released the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flowing into the Bay. The region’s streams, creeks and rivers are too rich in these nutrients. The TMDLs put the Bay on a diet to improve its health.
These TMDLs set Bay-wide watershed limits of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus, and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment flowing into the Bay per year. These levels correspond to 25 percent, 24 percent and 20 percent reductions, respectively, from 2009 load levels (the baseline year). The interim goal is to have in place, by 2017, practices and programs at the state and local level to achieve 60 percent of these mandated reductions.
The aggregate TMDLs for the Bay’s entire 64,000-square-mile watershed are divided among the Bay states and their major tributary basins, and are further categorized by major sources such as wastewater, urban storm water, septic and agriculture. In response to the Bay watershed TMDLs, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has developed Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) for Virginia’s tributary basins that explain how and when local jurisdictions will meet these EPA water quality mandates.
The Watershed Implementation Plan calls for Albemarle County to submit to DEQ a Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Action Plan by October 1, 2015. This action plan will describe required reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution into County surface waters and will provide an accounting of past and future capital projects and practices that will achieve these requirements. A draft version of the action plan was released this summer for public comment and is available online at www.albemarle.org/water by clicking on TMDLs in the left navigation bar.
Submission of this action plan also is required under EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Overseen by DEQ, NPDES allows the County to discharge, within prescribed limits, water-borne pollutants into local streams and rivers through its small municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4). The County MS4 stormwater sewer system is located primarily along the urbanized Rt. 29 north corridor.
New Funding Mechanism
To conduct these ambitious stormwater and water pollution reduction mandates, the County is considering a new funding mechanism—a Service district or a utility Fee—to provide a revenue stream directly to the Water Resource Management Department independent of the County’s General Fund. A year ago the Board of Supervisors formed the Water Resources Funding Advisory Committee to select the most appropriate funding structure and to present its recommendations to the Board this month. The Supervisors may vote on these measures this fall.
The Advisory Committee has focused its deliberations on the utility fee option. The utility fee would generate revenue from property owners. The size of the fee would be proportional to the total impervious area a property has. This would be determined for each property from the width and length of commercial and residential roofs, concrete, asphalt and gravel driveways and parking lots, heavily traveled farm dirt roads, sidewalks, hardscape patios, workshops, barns, sheds, garages, chicken coops, etc. The County would assess a fee for each property proportional to the total combined square footage of impervious surface. The greater a property’s impervious footprint, the higher its fee would be.
Properties owned by non-profits and places of worship would be subject to the utility fee. Credits would be offered by the County to reduce fees if a property owner implements approved, best management practices that reduce sediment runoff and nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The County has the option to set different rates for urban and rural areas.
Seeking answers to the questions posed above, I have reviewed the County’s action plan and numerous local, state and federal publications. I also have met with members and representatives of the Board of Supervisors, the Water Department, the Thomas Jefferson Soil & Water Conservation District, and the County’s Funding Advisory Committee, and I have participated in a citizen-led, town hall meeting.
Based upon these conversations, my review of government documents, and my calculations based on government data, I developed the following findings.
Water Program Analysis – Pollution Reduction
Albemarle County is situated within the James River Basin Watershed one of 92 distinct TMDLs Chesapeake Bay tidal segments. Based upon data from DEQ’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan—Phase II (provided to me by a member of the Advisory Committee) in combination with my own calculations, the estimated annual loads in 2009 from within the Albemarle County watershed to the Bay were 3.3 million pounds of nitrogen, 0.38 million pounds of phosphorus, and 0.14 billion pounds of sediment.
Putting these numbers in the context of the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, Albemarle County contributes 1.78 percent, 3.05 percent and 2.16 percent of these pollutants (nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment) to the Bay. To help restore Bay waters, the DEQ Watershed Implementation Plan instructs Albemarle County to reduce its overall contribution of these pollutants by 11.3 percent, 39.6 percent, and 46.6 percent, respectively.
To achieve these countywide goals, DEQ has recommended individual reduction goals for specific sources and land uses for each pollutant. For example, animal operators are expected to reduce their nitrogen loads by 80 percent, nurseries by 72 percent, pasture fields by 38 percent and hay fields by 36 percent. Septic systems, which constitute one-third of the nitrogen load countywide, need to reduce their nitrogen emissions by 2.5 percent under the current DEQ plan.
Strict pollution reduction mandates arise from the County’s NPDES stormwater sewer system permit. These mandates focus the action plan primarily on the small municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4)-regulated areas.
Comprising roughly five percent of County land, yearly loads coming from these urban areas are estimated to be 54,823 pounds of nitrogen, 6,058 pounds of phosphorus and 1,855,055 pounds of sediment. They contribute 1.66 percent of the nitrogen, 1.58 percent of the phosphorus and 1.33 percent of the sediment to the countywide loads of these pollutants. In other words, the MS4 areas represent less than 2 percent of the problem.
Within the MS4 areas, the action plan calls for load reductions of nitrogen by 7.0 percent, phosphorus by 12.5 percent and sediment by 16.8 percent. Happily, 53.0 percent, 58.4 percent and 90.4 percent of these goals, respectively, already have been achieved. Capital improvement projects, Best Management Practices (BMPs), stream restorations and connections of private septic systems to sanitary sewer conducted over the past nine years (under the current level of funding) have given Albemarle a jump start, and we are well more than half way toward meeting action plan goals in these urban areas.
Countywide, however, the story is very, very different. When the action plan is fully implemented, the loads of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment will be reduced by a mere 0.12, 0.20 and 0.22 percent, respectively. As it stands now, the proposed multi-million dollar expansion of the County’s water programs will not come close to achieving DEQ’s TMDL goals, and the action plan does not describe a credible, cost-effective path for getting there.
Water Program Analysis – Utility Fee
The County is seeking a new funding structure for its expanding water programs that is equitable, stable, simple and feasible. Does the proposed utility fee meet these criteria?
Equity. The County states there is a “strong” correlation between a property’s impervious area and stormwater runoff from the property. It claims that imperviousness “most closely characterizes the impact of a property’s runoff on local waterways.” Does this rule-of-thumb hold true in rural areas? Consider this scenario.
Imagine two private residences each having 2,500 square feet of impervious surface. One is situated in the country on a 5-acre wooded property. Its impervious area covers 1.1 percent of the land. The second is located within a high-density housing development on a quarter-acre lot. Its impervious area covers 23 percent of the land. During a one-inch rain event, 1,560 gallons of stormwater will flow off both of these impervious surfaces. Because the wooded lot has a much greater capacity to absorb this runoff than does the urban lot, their impact on local waterways likely will be widely different. This, of course, is why there are so few stormwater drains located in rural areas.
On a completely different note, is it in the best interest of the community to burden local non-profits and religious organizations with these fees and their associated administrative costs?
Stability. The utility fee is based upon a “physical metric.” It will not fluctuate with changes in property values. In this sense, the fee is stable. However, the County is legally obligated to offer credits to property owners to offset the cost of the fee. Annual revenues from the fee will depend upon the kind and level of credits offered and the degree to which property owners implement best management practices onsite.
Simplicity and Feasibility. Accurately determining the total impervious area of each property is not simple. Is the County’s GIS system up to the task? My experience with the tax maps gives me pause. Compared to drawing revenue from the General Fund, is it practical and cost-effective to have County staff periodically updating their impervious square-foot records and BMP credits to reflect every time a property owner has erected, modified or torn down a structure (barn, shed, garage) or installed a rain garden?
Debates about what is impervious or what is a valid credit are likely to arise. Is a partially grass covered, gravel driveway impervious? Is a dirt road on a farm impervious? Is a 55-gallon rain barrel connected to a downspout worthy of a credit?
The Board of Supervisors and County staff are actively grappling with how to respond at the local level to expanding federal and state water quality mandates. The issues are complex and time is running short. Livelihoods will be impacted. So will property owners. To create and maintain broad support, any new and expanded water programs need to be cost-effective and achieve measurable benefits felt locally. The time is ripe to get informed and to get involved.