By: His Worship Carl Zehr, Mayor, City of Kitchener
Storm drainage or storm water management (SWM) is just one of many responsibilities shouldered by Canada’s municipalities. But it’s also a very unique responsibility in that it offers municipalities a great opportunity to motivate positive changes in behaviour and alter their perceptions about the environment.
In 2011, the City of Kitchener engaged in an innovative yet controversial change. The City moved storm water management funding from the tax base to a user pay system. The new user pay rate—based on the amount of impervious area on each property—has resulted in a source of dedicated and sustainable funding for the costs associated with storm water management. The rationale is clear: the more impervious area that an individual property contains, the greater the runoff and pollutants that will come from that property. And, that property will also result in greater demand on the City’s storm water management system.
Properties with a high percentage of impervious surfaces—buildings, driveways and parking lots—typically create a lot of runoff. These surfaces don’t allow water to absorb into the earth. Under Kitchener’s new user pay system, industrial, institutional, and commercial properties are now paying a fairer share. These types of properties contribute more runoff and pollutants than residential properties.
I even feel self-conscious about the amount of impervious area on my own property. My own driveway is quite big. Things are designed for convenience, not for conservation. I didn’t think about that before because the cost impact was buried in my taxes.
In Kitchener, replacement and maintenance of aging infrastructure priorities historically took precedence over upgrading the system, resulting in current SWM infrastructure needs being under-funded, says Grant Murphy, who serves as Kitchener’s Director of Engineering Services. According to Grant, the old tax-based system of funding placed a disproportionate amount of storm water management costs on properties with a higher assessed value, and residential properties carried more of the burden than industrial, commercial and institutional properties. What’s more, tax increases only amplified this inequity between different property sectors.
Now, with a user-fee system, storm water services are no longer funded through property taxes but through a separately billed utility—just like gas and hydro.
It scared the heck out of me when we first started talking about doing this. It’s not an easy process to change the way we think about making the system fairer for taxpayers. Selling the concept to the public can be extremely difficult when you’re talking about taxes versus user fees. The result, however, is a solution that, at its core, makes Kitchener a better steward of the environment.
Kitchener has a population of about 230,000. Its storm water infrastructure assets are valued at $260 million, and are spread across a land mass of about 137 square kilometres (53 square miles). All of the City’s storm water flows are directed towards the Grand River, with Lake Erie acting as the ultimate receiver. Additionally, about 70% of the drinking water for Kitchener comes from groundwater sources, with the balance from the Grand River. Therefore, source water protection is critical, not only for Kitchener but right across the watershed.
Under the new user pay funding model, we were able to bring Kitchener’s storm water management up to a sustainable level of service, clean-up the central downtown Victoria Park Lake, and make other improvements to the SWM system. There was overwhelming evidence that the City needed to move forward with an increased level of SWM service. Urbanization and intensification were placing pressure on system capacity and causing significant impacts on downstream natural streams and creeks.
A storm water rate credit system is also underway that will recognize efforts by private property owners to adopt best management practices, including vegetated swales, infiltration trenches, porous pavement, or extended detention stormwater basins. Property owners can qualify for a maximum credit of 45% of the monthly utility bill if they can demonstrate that their stormwater facilities are functioning as approved.
Others are beginning to take notice of our innovative program. In August 2011, the City of Kitchener was awarded the Peter J. Marshall Municipal Innovation Award from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) for implementing the new storm water utility. The award recognizes municipal governments that demonstrate excellence in using innovative approaches to improving capital or operating efficiency and generating greater program effectiveness through alternative service delivery initiatives and partnerships.
Kitchener was also awarded a grant from the Government of Ontario’s Showcasing Water Innovation Program, which supports projects with innovative and cost-effective ways to improve drinking water, wastewater, and storm water systems.
The City was also awarded almost $1 million to develop public outreach tools and pilot projects to ensure effective uptake of the stormwater rate credit policies by property owners and another $1 million for a City initiative called Beyond the Landfill, Finding Better Uses for Stormwater Pond Sediments.
All of this funding recognizes Kitchener’s dedication to developing smart solutions to help protect our local water supply. The investment will go a long way in helping us continue the work that’s now underway in the areas of storm water management and innovative sediment treatments. Pending the success of the trial study we’re conducting with the Region of Waterloo, it could lead to space savings in local landfills and a reduction in energy required to fertilize local soils.
To be sure, it hasn’t always been an easy path to follow, but in the end, it was the right thing to do. And it’s nice to be recognized not just for the effort we put in, but that the idea itself is innovative and helps foster positive environmental action by our community.