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Stormwater fees help fund improvements

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Whiteland is expecting to finish a $700,000 to increase the size of the stormwater system on Pearl Street between the railroad tracks and Brewer Ditch. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Whiteland is expecting to finish a $700,000 to increase the size of the stormwater system on Pearl Street between the railroad tracks and Brewer Ditch. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

The $5 monthly fee residents started paying in 2012 soon will pay for a robot camera to travel through Greenwood’s stormwater drain pipes, looking for holes and debris.

And this year, Whiteland should finish a $700,000 project to expand part of the stormwater system that residents paid for with their $7.50 monthly fee.

Beginning in 2001, residents and businesses across the county began paying the stormwater fees, which now range from $2.50 per month for a mobile home in Franklin to $300 plus $25 per acre for new construction in unincorporated areas.

The purpose of the fee, which is added to utility bills or charged with county building permits, is to pay for projects that keep local stormwater drainage systems up to federal and state environmental standards.

Greenwood started its stormwater utility in 2012 to comply with state rules for managing water quality, and in November it hired its first full-time employee.

The city joined Johnson County and other cities and towns locally that created new stormwater utilities that collect fees from businesses and residents to pay for projects that maintain existing infrastructure and keep the local water in streams and ponds clean.

Local governments have used the fees to inspect and clean drain pipes, repair and expand existing pipe systems, and make sure no one is dumping motor oil or wet cement into the system.

The most recent is in Bargersville, where the town is paying off a $3 million loan used to pay for redoing Harriman Avenue and its storm sewers. And in the next several years, millions of dollars are expected to be spent on salaries, equipment such as Greenwood’s future vacuum truck and pipe repairs.

“It’s a whole green way of thinking,” Greenwood stormwater superintendent Chris Jones said.

The stormwater systems that the utilities inspect and plan to improve include creeks and any drains that rain, melting snow or other stormwater flows into.

That water and all of the leaves, cigarette butts, plastic drinking straws and disposable cups that flow into the drains eventually head toward the local drinking water supply, Jones said.

Keeping the water clean prevents flooding in neighborhoods due to blocked drains and backed up rainwater collection ponds, and it also protects the wildlife, such as fish, in streams and ponds, he said. Any trash that doesn’t get picked up by a street sweeper ends up in creeks and, eventually, in our drinking water supply, he said.

Goal: Clean water

In 2003, the state began requiring cities and counties to oversee new construction and the erosion and runoff from the work sites and also to work to prevent water pollution by maintaining existing stormwater drain systems and educating residents on proper stormwater drainage.

The changes were required locally after federal laws were approved to prevent local water pollution.

Keeping the water clean requires residents to learn, for example, not to run their home downspouts straight into creeks or allow a sump pump to send water right next to their homes. A longer, more natural flow down to a creek, pond or a stormwater sewer drain can allow dirt and stones to filter out trash, he said.

Downspouts directed into creeks can destroy the walls of creeks, which then fill in with dirt, can’t carry as much water and have to be repaired, he said.

One of the responsibilities of the local utilities is to educate residents and contractors on what state and federal requirements are; and stormwater utilities, such as Johnson County’s, do that through booths at the county fair and visiting classrooms at local schools.

But how each local government meets the requirements of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and federal law varies, including how the local utility is structured and how fees are spent. For example, Johnson County’s program primarily pays for inspections of new construction and fines violators of state and federal law for disposing of contaminants, such as motor oil, in stormwater. The county doesn’t own or maintain the pipe systems, while the cities and towns do.

The county also fines contractors for damaging the stormwater system by clogging pipes or filling rain water collection ponds with cement, according to David Hittle, director of the county planning and zoning department.

Assessments vary

Other local governments charge fees to all properties with buildings or hard surfaces, such as asphalt parking lots, because the cities and towns own the drainage systems that serve those properties need money to maintain them.

Greenwood, which has the newest stormwater utility locally, this year will pay salaries for a four-employee department that makes repairs, cleans pipes and plans long-term maintenance and upgrade projects. Starting this year, Jones wants to send video cameras through all 566,000 feet of the city’s pipes and clean the entire system, but he isn’t sure how long that will take.

Other departments, such as Whiteland’s, currently don’t have any full-time staff and mainly pay the town’s street department and contractors to make repairs to broken pipes.

The street department cleans out stormwater sewers as needed, and the town hired a contractor to expand the storm sewer on Pearl Street between the railroad tracks and Brewer Ditch in a $700,000 project that should be completed this year. Next, the town would like to replace a section of pipe under the railroad tracks for up to $70,000 out of its capital projects fund, town manager Dennis Capozzi said.

The $700,000 project was paid for with a loan. The town raised its rates from $4.50 per month in 2010 to the current $7.50 and will be limited in what future projects it can do because of funding, he said.

“There are numerous projects that we’d like to get done, but we don’t want to overwhelm our citizens with fees,” he said.

Ongoing maintenance, such as cutting tree roots out of pipes, rather than making fixes only when residents complain of flooding or when there’s a sinkhole, should allow for a focus on water quality instead of just pipe repairs, Jones said.

Not having a utility in the past has meant a piecemeal approach to caring for the stormwater system, with public works, street and other departments juggling repairs as needed, he said.

Long term, the local utilities should save cities and towns money by catching pipe breaks early, preventing erosion and avoiding federal water quality violations that come with hefty fines, he said.

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