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Stormwater "Key Issue" For City In 2017

Dec 28, 2016

By Beth Milligan - The Ticker (Traverse City)

{Pictured: City stormwater drain on Front Street}

Traverse City officials are already predicting one of the key buzzwords of 2017: stormwater.

The city is approaching a May deadline to wrap up a $2 million state and federal grant project to survey its wastewater and stormwater systems. Over the last three years, the SAW (stormwater, asset management and wastewater) grant has paid for cleaning and televising sewer pipes throughout the city’s 80-mile underground system. The grant also covered mapping the city’s collection and drainage systems, and creating a capital improvement plan for upgrading pipe lines throughout the city.

The biggest price tag for improvements is expected to be for the city’s stormwater system, which handles runoff water from rain and melting snow. Runoff water travels over parking lots, roads, rooftops, driveways and other paved surfaces, often carrying pollutants and sediment with it into stormwater pipes, which empty directly into local rivers and lakes.

Unlike drinking water and wastewater pipes, which are maintained through accounts funded by user fees, there is no dedicated funding source in place for stormwater lines.

“You pay a rate for your sewer and water, and that money goes into an enterprise fund that takes care of all this maintenance,” explains City GIS Coordinator Larry LaCross. “There is no funding mechanism at all for stormwater. Before the SAW grant, it’d be a situation where we would fix something (only) when it broke. We want to be proactive, not reactive…but it takes money and manpower to do that.”

City Commissioner Tim Werner, who sits on a stakeholder committee for the SAW grant, says consultants have estimated Traverse City stormwater improvements will cost “tens of millions” of dollars over the next several decades, an investment that could top $1 million annually. The infrastructure will also have to be maintained once improvements are made, requiring annual payments in perpetuity. “We’re playing catch up,” Werner says. “And even once we do catch up, there’s going to need to be a sustained rate of spending to maintain what we’ve tended to ignore. The cost is spread over many decades, but it’s still on a large (annual) order.”

Improvements could include not only fixing the existing stormwater infrastructure, but introducing green technology upgrades to better prevent pollution from entering local waterways. The investment is “extremely important” for a community that prizes and is renowned for its water quality, says Werner.

Exactly how Traverse City’s stormwater improvements will be funded, however, is still an open question. Several Michigan municipalities have faced lawsuits for imposing stormwater fees on users; in 2013, Jackson lost a high-profile case when a court deemed its stormwater fees an “illegal tax.” In a Traverse City overview of the SAW grant, staff note it is likely that “any dedicated funding structure for stormwater will need to go through a referendum in order to…prevent legal challenges.” A millage request to fund stormwater improvements, then, could be one option for the city; others include special assessment districts, local taxes and development review/impact fees.

City Manager Marty Colburn noted to commissioners Monday that legislative efforts are also underway in Michigan to establish a mechanism for introducing stormwater user fees. City Commissioner Richard Lewis added that a state 21st Century Infrastructure Commission report released this month calls for widespread investment in infrastructure throughout the state, including for stormwater. “I think there’s a lot of recognition (at the state level) that something is going to have to happen, and it’s going to have to be through legislation,” Lewis said.

In the meantime, city commissioners last week approved hiring a new public utilities director to oversee the city’s water systems. Several commissioners cited the large number of projects and investment ahead that will be required to implement the findings of the SAW grant in their support for the position – particularly in the area of stormwater.

“I think one of the key issues this individual is going to have to deal with is stormwater,” said Lewis. “I see this as a very needed position. I think it’s what we’ve been waiting for.”

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