October 10, 2008

The Pipes Runneth Over

The last thing anyone wants shoved in his mailbox during these tight economic times is another utility bill from the government. So it was a given that an hourlong presentation to Roanoke City Council on how to pay to improve the city's storm sewer system would be met with the level of enthusiasm usually reserved for a root canal.

But like decaying teeth, crumbling infrastructure can't be ignored forever. It can be postponed, true, but inevitably one has to face the dentist. Roanoke's inadequate storm-sewer system (not to be confused with sanitary sewers that carry away wastewater) goes unnoticed until rainwater pooling on roadways and yards serves up a visible reminder.

Not all of Roanoke's problems are caused by playing the role of the county's catch basin. But surrounding localities, reluctant to address storm runoff, do contribute. Roanoke's neighbors soon may be forced to act as they come under increasing pressure by federal and state regulations to address not only the amount of storm water but the quality of the runoff as well.

City council is hoping others in the Roanoke River watershed will grant a more receptive welcome than in the past in addressing, as a region, the staggering number of needed projects. But as council heard Monday, the city has plenty of its own problems to solve -- about $60 million worth.

The city could charge property owners for their share of contributing to the problem the same way it charges for water and sanitary sewer usage. The working model shows homeowners paying a flat rate based on an average of about 2,000 square feet of impervious areas (house, driveway, patio and the like). The cost would be rather modest (from $2.70 to $4.50 a month) -- meaning homeowners wouldn't like it, but they could afford it.

But business, industry and churches could face monthly bills in the hundreds of dollars if fees are calculated based on how much they contribute to the problem. Naturally, council isn't willing yet to have this conversation, but members understand they will at some date be forced to address runoff.

While the engineering department should continue working on a plan, council can look to complementary options. Top on the list should be exploring ways to minimize runoff and the flow into storm sewers.

The city should work with developers of new projects to use materials that don't contribute to the problem and with businesses, churches and homeowners on adding features like rain gardens and green roofs that help to reduce runoff. This could help ease the problem and, equally important, the price tag.

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