Perspective: Creating a stormwater utility in Hammonton
My name is Molly Riley. I am the Water Quality Coordinator for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. We are a no-partisan, tax-deductible non-profit that protects our precious natural resources by raising awareness of key environmental challenges and increasing the efficacy of the entire environmental community. I’m writing today to talk about something that has been top priority for Hammonton and many communities in N.J., which is flooding and harmful runoff pollution.
On my visits to Hammonton, I am always taken aback by the beauty of the town. Passing through the many blueberry fields and quaint downtown is such an enjoyable experience that has truly made me appreciate the unique charm of Hammonton. I have also come to appreciate that Hammonton has such an amazing group of local advocates in the Environmental Commission, Green Team and Hammonton Lake Water Quality Committee. This past year, I have been working closely with these groups and other local partner organizations to build awareness of the impacts of local flooding and stormwater runoff.
Stormwater runoff is generated from rain and snowmelt that flows over land or impervious surfaces, such as paved streets, parking lots and building rooftops, and does not soak into the ground. Runoff can pick up and deposit harmful pollutants like trash, chemicals and dirt/sediment into streams, lakes and groundwater.
Hammonton has vulnerable areas that have been negatively impacted by flooding and runoff population, particularly the business district and Hammonton Lake. According to the Delaware Riverkeeper report on water quality, 77 percent of assessed stream miles in the watershed do not meet federal water quality standards, mostly due to uncontrolled runoff. This watershed is responsible for the drinking water of millions of individuals and feeds delicate ecosystems like the Highlands and Pinelands.
Hammonton has already taken first steps towards addressing these problems by installing rain gardens by the Canoe Club and high school with one more slated to go at the corner of Batchelor Lane. A rain garden is a garden of native shrubs, perennials and flowers planted in a small depression, which is generally formed on a natural slope.
Rain gardens are one of the many types of green infrastructure projects that can be installed to temporarily hold and soak in rain water runoff that flows from roofs, driveways, patios or lawns. Rain gardens are effective in removing up to 90 percent of nutrients and chemicals and up to 80 percent of sediments from the rainwater runoff. Compared to a conventional lawn, rain gardens allow for 30 percent more water to soak into the ground. They have the added benefits of being aesthetically pleasing, and providing pollinator habitat which can aid the nearby blueberry farms.
There are also many other types of green infrastructure that can be better utilized like green roofs, bioswales and permeable pavement, that Hammonton can take advantage of with the right funding mechanisms in place. Many organizations in N.J. have grant programs available that the Hammonton Environmental Commission is exploring or already utilizing to help.
However, arguably the best long-term solution for a community to reduce harmful flooding and get sustainable financing for traditional stormwater infrastructure improvements as well as green infrastructure is to implement a stormwater utility.
A stormwater utility functions like any other utility in the sense that it is a fee for a service. The funds collected via stormwater utility are legally dedicated and cannot be diverted to a municipality’s general fund. It’s important to note that there are over 1,800 stormwater utilities in 41 states across the country, so while it is a newer concept in N.J., it is not a new policy in general. Right now, Hammonton is burdened with having to pay for needed stormwater management through the general fund or bonding which leaves little room to do the kinds of projects that are required to reduce flooding and address impacts from runoff pollution.
The current system of paying for stormwater management through the general fund is also not a financially equitable system for Hammonton’s taxpayers. It is essentially subsidizing big producers of runoff caused by large parking lots, big box stores and other entities that are not appropriately paying for their impacts on the community.
A stormwater utility can help address this problem. For the average residential property, it would cost only a few dollars a month while large producers of runoff will pay a rate that is proportional to the costs the town needs to manage the runoff of properties with large amounts of impervious area.
A stormwater utility would not only provide stable low-level funding for stormwater management, and free up capital for Hammonton to address other priorities for residents, but also provides an incentive for large producers of runoff to reduce their impacts. This is because stormwater utilities are required by law to incorporate a credit system.
This credit system makes it possible for homes and businesses to reduce their fees if they take steps to reduce their runoff through methods such as removing excess pavement or installing green infrastructure projects like a rain garden on their property. The credit system is just one of many aspects of stormwater utilities that make it an adaptable system for municipalities of many sizes and various levels of flooding and water quality concerns.
Now is a good time to act on exploring if a stormwater utility is a good fit for Hammonton. After experiencing heavy rains from storms like Sandy, Henri and Ida, many other N.J. municipalities are already undergoing the process of examining stormwater utilities and there are ample opportunities for financial assistance to do so.
It is the fiscal responsibility of the town to get the facts and present the findings to residents and stakeholders, but it is also not something that Hammonton has to do on its own. My organization along with many others are ready to help Hammonton in this exploratory process and get the town on the best track towards a sustainable (and drier) future.
Water Quality Coordinator
New Jersey League of Conservation Voters