By Jay Greene of Crain’s Detroit Business
What does modern stormwater management look like? If you ask engineering experts, more ponds, wetlands and vegetative ditches could replace past practices, such as simply burying bigger pipes.
Stronger and more frequent rainstorms — like the Aug. 11, 2014, cloudburst that dumped 5 inches of rain on Southeast Michigan in just a few hours — are likely to hit Michigan over the next several decades. And that’s expected to lead to more widespread basement and road flooding, water pollution and possible public health emergencies, according to experts.
With residents and business owners still battle-scarred from those 2014 storms, the topic of how to create — and pay for — the infrastructure to drain stormwater has moved nearer to the top of the priority list for local governments.
And that’s why new efforts are underway to create a common method of paying for drainage projects and giving businesses an incentive to invest in green infrastructure. The new ideas could help ease the burden on drainage systems around the state and region that are bursting at the seams.
To be sure, major capital projects involving traditional infrastructure will still be needed, but the green ideas are gaining momentum as part of comprehensive planning.
Storms to increase
Average annual rainfall in Michigan has increased by 12 percent since 1964. Two-inch rainstorms — that impact and shape rivers the most — also have increased 89 percent during that period, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As predictions call for a 6- to 7-degree rise in summer temperatures in the Midwest over the next 80 years, extreme storms in Michigan are also expected to increase, taxing the state’s aging and inadequate drainage and sewer systems, said the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Over the past decade, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash has been encouraging businesses to invest in green infrastructure projects on their properties to reduce stormwater runoff that can overwhelm public drains and cause pollution to overflow into waterways. He has also warned that inaction in the face of the expected heavy rainstorms is not an option and would have dire economic effects.
“We can’t afford to spend $1.5 billion to improve our old infrastructure. We need to figure out a way to do it with green infrastructure,” said Nash. “The August 2014 storm overwhelmed the system. No drainage system could have sustained that.”
Nash said because it is too expensive to build new and larger drains, the most cost-effective way is for property owners to capture rainwater on their land for gradual release into either drains or allow it to naturally percolate into the ground. Otherwise, the water runs off all at once from buildings and parking lots and into already overwhelmed drainage systems.
Green infrastructure is an approach to stormwater management that protects, restores or mimics the natural water cycle, said Don Carpenter, professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University and director of the Great Lakes Stormwater Management Institute. And it’s incredibly important, Carpenter said.
“One of the things we rely on as a Great Lakes state is water resources,” he said. “It (impacts) our economy, environment and quality of life. We need revenue streams locally to fund water management.”
Green infrastructure also is effective, economical and can enhance community safety and quality of life, Carpenter said. Planting trees and restoring wetlands is cheaper and more pleasing to the eye than building larger drains or water treatment plants.
“People pay for roads and bridges and support it because they can see it,” he said. “They don’t understand infrastructure of pipes and ponds underground because they don’t see it. Green infrastructure, people can see it” and it works to assist natural water cycles.
In a presentation last month at Lawrence Tech, Jeff Andresen, state climatologist and assistant professor of geography at Michigan State University, confirmed Michigan has experienced wetter and more extreme weather events the past decade and since 1930.
“(Data simulations) on the Great Lakes region suggest a warmer and wetter climate in the distant future, with much of the additional precipitation coming during the cold season months,” said Andresen.
“Given the projected rate of climate change, adaptive planning strategies should be dynamic in nature,” he added.
At the state level, Rep. Mike McCready, R-Birmingham, has proposed model legislation, House Bill 5991, that would allow local governmental subdivisions to collect fees rather than property taxes for stormwater abatement and grant credits against “green infrastructure” capital projects. These projects include retention ponds, rooftop rain gardens, community gardens and bioswales, which are essentially vegetated ditches.
“Businesses are already paying for (stormwater drainage costs). This tightens it up and prevents (owners) from being overcharged and sets up an appropriate amount,” McCready said.
Over the last several years, McCready said, a series of lawsuits filed against municipalities, including Birmingham, challenging how taxes are charged for stormwater runoff got him interested in the issue.
For example, Birmingham has agreed to pay $2.85 million to settle a lawsuit and must submit a plan to the court by the end of the year. Ferndale also recently settled for $4.25 million, and a similar lawsuit against Royal Oak is pending, he said.
“This money is not going back to residents to fix stormwater” runoff problems, McCready said. “We need to create a law to (help governmental bodies) manage runoff.”
McCready said the bill addresses the problems created by the lawsuit and a 1998 Michigan Supreme Court decision on Bolt v. City of Lansing. The court ruled the fee Lansing imposed was actually a tax that required voter approval. The ruling set up a clear method to charge property owners for runoff, he said.
Nationally, more than 1,500 communities in states such as Florida, Arizona and Ohio have approved stormwater utility taxing districts that charge property owners fees to pay for runoff. About 45 governments in Michigan have created stormwater utilities to charge property owners for public drainage systems, but some of those utilities are now under assault from the Bolt decision, McCready said.
Owners that build retention ponds to limit runoff from parking lots, buildings and other surfaces also can potentially reduce their tax burden, he said. The bill allows a tax writeoff equal to 80 percent of qualifying green infrastructure costs.
Chuck Hersey, senior fellow at Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, said McCready’s bill is important because it helps governmental bodies comply with Bolt, creates uniform standards and encourages green infrastructure construction.
“We can’t build sewers so big that we treat everything,” he said. “It would cost too much, just as we can’t afford to do a police budget so we have no crime at all.”
Hersey said the traditional way of funding stormwater drains doesn’t work anymore.
“A lot of people think these storms are being taken care of by taxes they pay,” he said. “Communities are tapped out (on taxes). They are unlikely to cut fire and police to pay for stormwater.”
Nash said because most communities don’t have dedicated methods to pay for stormwater drains, they take it from property taxes or through water bill charges.
However, Hersey said using property taxes is an inherently unfair way to pay for stormwater because it is based on the value of a property and not the relative amount of runoff from the property that goes into drains.
“Some properties are big and underdeveloped. There is less runoff” because the ground is permeable, Hersey said. “Some (properties) are much smaller but more developed, have more roofs, with a lot of runoff coming off. They pay less in taxes even though they use far more (drainage) services.”
Hersey said paying based on the use of the system, allowing for credits for green infrastructure that retains runoff, is a much fairer system.
“Under the green infrastructure policy, if you reduce the amount of water running off property, your bill would be reduced,” Hersey said. “The company can turn its engineers loose. If I plant trees or vegetation, put in technological systems, what will my return on investment be? You’ll be saving money.”
Andy Such, director of environmental quality with the Michigan Manufacturing Association, said the 2,500-member business group favors such an approach that creates a uniform fee structure with credits for green infrastructure. He said the MMA hasn’t completely vetted McCready’s bill.
“We are supportive of a concept to have a statewide approach to avoid having a patchwork quilt of plans,” Such said. “We think it is a good idea to allow local units to decide how to coordinate how they do it and give credits for green infrastructure.”
Such said one problem large manufacturing companies have is that each tax body has a different method how to charge for stormwater runoff.
“When companies invest in infrastructure improvements, they would like to have those costs recognized in the fee structure,” Such said. “The other thing is the fees raised by this system should be spent on this system. We want it transparent for where money goes.”
Overflows bring scares
Stormwater runoff is related to a more serious health policy issue — the practice of releasing untreated wastewater into lakes and rivers when the systems can’t keep up with volume.
Because Michigan has 46 combined sewer systems, the third-largest total in the nation, the danger of overflow when stormwater volume exceeds drain capacities can lead to discharges of untreated sewage and industrial wastes into nearby water bodies. Public health officials warn that people can become sick by drinking or being exposed to the contaminated water.
Combined sewer systems include those in Detroit, Dearborn, Oakland County, Wyandotte, Saginaw, Macomb County and Lansing. Each of those systems experienced millions of gallons of overflow into bodies of water after 2- to 3-inch rainfalls in 24-hour periods since 2008, said the state Department of Environmental Quality.
During these heavy rains, which occurred three times this past summer, thousands of homes and businesses suffered water damage as sewer systems and drainage pipes backed up and flooded because they are hooked up to the same drains. The August 2014 storm that flooded parts of Detroit caused $1.1 billion in damages and led to a federal disaster designation.
To address this issue in Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan has revised the city’s longer-term effort of improving stormwater drainage. He scrapped a 6-year-old, $1.2 billion construction plan to build more massive drains and instead decided to embark on a $50 million program on green infrastructure projects in the Upper Rouge area on the city’s far west side.
On Oct. 1, Detroit also began charging property owners for water runoff based on how much impervious acreage they have instead of how large their water meter is. The charge for nonresidential owners is $750 per acre of impervious surface per month. Fees are coming for other businesses, nonprofits and homeowners.
Duggan’s plan encourages businesses and residential homeowners to invest in green infrastructure that can divert water from public drains by offering fee credits for the investments. In a post-bankruptcy Detroit, a new regional governing entity, the Great Lakes Water Authority, signed a 40-year lease with Detroit for $50 million a year. Detroit is using these funds to overhaul its aging infrastructure.
Green infrastructure projects include elimination of impervious ground surfaces that don’t allow water to soak through by constructing bioswales, wetlands, rain gardens and other methods that allow rain and melted snow to more naturally filter into the ground, rather than running off into city sewers.
Carpenter said he supports Detroit’s fee structure and emphasis on encouraging green infrastructure.
“Detroit is a combined sewer system, and lots of stormwater runoff goes into the sanitary system,” Carpenter said. “They are trying to come up with an equitable structure to maintain their infrastructure using natural systems.”
Hersey said public infrastructure investment is important to business, economic prosperity and the environment.
“People want to live in a place where services are good, the environment is safe, schools are good and they are not in fear of crime,” Hersey said. “If any of those things are out of whack, you have problems and people won’t stay. That is problematic for businesses.”