New White Paper Examines Stormwater Fees

Rain flows into a catch basin in Mid-City.

Rain flows into a catch basin in Mid-City.

The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans marked the start of 2019 with the release of a new white paper on stormwater fees, sometimes referred to as drainage fees or stormwater utility rates. With assistance from members of the Water Collaborative’s Policy and Advocacy Working Group, lead author Paul Tassin examines how other cities have used similar fees to improve water quality and reduce flood risk.

As policymakers wrestle with how to fund New Orleans’ drainage system — strapped for cash in the wake of costly emergency repairs following 2017 floods — residents are increasingly aware that the status quo is insufficient, unsustainable and inequitable.

It is insufficient by some $50 million annually. That’s the estimated yearly shortfall for operations and maintenance of the combined drainage network managed by Department of Public Works and Sewerage and Water Board. It is unsustainable because the resulting deferred maintenance leads to mechanical failures like those that have plagued the S&WB power supply. But even more importantly it is unsustainable because over-reliance on pumping exacerbates land subsidence and emits more of the pollution that causes climate change. We need a smarter approach that uses nature based designs known as green infrastructure. Finally, the status quo is inequitable because many property owners pay nothing at all. Relying solely on property tax millage to fund stormwater management means universities, hospitals, churches and other institutions pay nothing, regardless of how much runoff they direct into the drainage network.

The Policy and Advocacy Working Group of the Water Collaborative has wrestled with the question: How can we make drainage financing more sufficient, more sustainable and more equitable? While there are no silver bullets or quick fixes in a situation this complex, there are many tools available to make New Orleans. One of these is to adopt user fee for all properties that put runoff into our drainage network. Typically these charges are referred to as stormwater fees, and many US cities now charge them. Often, a stormwater utility is established to collect the fees and administer the related programs. In New Orleans, that could take the form of an existing agency, new agency or division, or cooperative endeavor among multiple agencies. Many jurisdictions offer fee relief to qualifying low-income residents and discounts to households that use green infrastructure to produce less runoff.

Read the white paper, “Using a Stormwater Fee to Finance More Equitable, Sustainable, and Innovative
Urban Water Management,”
to learn more, and dive into the footnotes for additional resources.

Nathan Lott