An Op-ed by Senator Regan and Dawn Keefer: With the rise of storm water fees, water quality data and monitoring plans are needed

Many of our constituents have contacted us recently expressing concern and frustration with a new storm water fee being imposed by their municipalities.  While this is not a new issue, generally speaking, we are equally concerned as more and more municipalities choose to impose a fee on their residents in response to clean water mandates coming down from the Federal government.

Let us be clear that we do not fault any municipality that has taken the step to approve a storm water fee.  We recognize that our fellow elected officials are facing mandates to reduce supposed pollution levels in local waterways. With that said, we are calling on municipal leaders to act as responsible stewards of your money and join us in calling on Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to provide substantiated, comprehensive data of current water quality and plans for monitoring water improvements. 

This matter has evolved from the original 1972 Clean Water Act. From there, in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the Federal government took steps to reduce “nonpoint source” pollution, such as storm water runoff, which as it flows over the ground collects items including fertilizer, snowmelt, oil, sediment, and animal waste. Ultimately, these “pollutants” can make their way into our streams and creeks that feed into the Susquehanna River, which ultimately feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Federal government established the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), rolled out in a two-phase process, the second of which was done in 1999 with the establishment of Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems, known as MS4s. Put simply, an MS4 is a system maintained by your municipality that collects and moves storm water but does not connect to a wastewater treatment plant. Examples can include ditches and drains.  Under the NPDES program, a municipality is required to obtain an MS4 permit, and Pennsylvania began issuing such permits in 2002.

In the years since then, Pennsylvania has seen more and more mandatory requirements, especially on municipalities, as well as farmers, to reduce the amount of pollution in our waterways. In particular, a 2010 lawsuit brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation against the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was settled and resulted in pollution limits, known as Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), being set.  Each of the six states that have waterways feeding into the Chesapeake Bay, as well as the District of Columbia, were allocated pollution reductions and each were required to create and implement a plan to achieve those reductions.

Now ten years later, Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are threatening to sue the EPA for not enforcing pollution reduction targets and Pennsylvania for supposedly “repeatedly falling short” of goals to reduce pollution from the Susquehanna River to the Bay.

As you can see the purpose of the MS4 program broadly surrounds the objective of reducing pollution to Pennsylvania waterways and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay from storm water.  However, one of the concerns that has been raised is that regulators never reasonably determined the level of pollution to Pennsylvania streams allegedly from storm water, while accepted science suggests that municipal storm water contributes a relatively small percentage of the total impairment to our waterways.

There are concerns that the stream studies conducted to establish TMDLs were scientifically incomplete and flawed.  They failed to identify specific storm water sources of pollution to our waterways as well as any metrics to measure whether collection and spending of MS4 fees will have a sustainable positive impact on improving the water quality of our streams.  When many of our local waterways are classified as High Quality or Exceptional Value, meaning they are positively impacting our nation’s water quality, why should our residents be saddled with unjustifiable fees?

With regard to the fees, we acknowledge that the state legislature set the stage for such action.  In 2013, legislation was signed into law authorizing the formation of authorities for purposes of storm water management, and then in 2014, a new law permitted those authorities to impose “reasonable and uniform” storm water fees. A subsequent law in 2016 extended those same powers to second class townships. 

No additional types of municipalities, such as first class townships or boroughs, have been granted the right to directly charge a storm water fee, and they must go the route of establishing an authority to do so.  There is however, current legislation calling for such an allowance.

The lack of consistency with implementation throughout our districts makes us question whether the fees are actually “reasonable and uniform” as required under the law. The varying strategies between municipalities are complicated and unpredictable, presenting substantial challenges for businesses and farmers operating in multiple jurisdictions.

Businesses who have already invested heavily in NPDES fees and permits, employing Best Management Practices (BMPs) to ensure discharges meet dictated standards, are receiving credit for their NPDES permit in some municipalities but not in others.  Additionally, we are seeing the substantial economic hardship storm water fees are placing on farmers, many of which are already struggling to maintain their livelihood on the farm. 

Of course, a primary concern is the impact storm water fees will have on residents since the fees are also being imposed on properties such as churches and schools. This is one more unfunded mandate that our public schools will have to pass on to taxpayers.  So a homeowner will not only be paying the fee for their property – on top of property taxes – but the storm water fees imposed on all government buildings, including schools, their church, and likely through increased costs at local businesses.

While we certainly recognize that as elected officials we are charged with being good stewards of Pennsylvania’s natural resources, we are also charged with being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.  If residents are going to be charged a fee, we want it to be “reasonable and uniform” and be based on solid information.  At this point the MS4 program, as implemented in Pennsylvania, has proven to be financially burdensome on municipalities and their residents, and they deserve to have a full understanding as to the justification of these costs and what their money is expected to achieve.  It is time to quantify current conditions and develop a reasonable plan that charts a scientific course to the improvement of our waterways that is not only measurable but includes a finish line. 

CONTACT:  Erin K. Marsicano, 717-787-8524, (Senator Regan)

                      Greg Gross, 717-260-6374, (Rep. Dawn Keefer)