Higher sewer fees could pay for ‘community greening’

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — An effort to implement more environmentally-friendly storm water management could cost Harrisburg residents more money.

Under federal mandate to capture more polluted runoff before it enters the Susquehanna River, Capital Region Water unveiled its draft community greening initiative on Tuesday evening. The extensive plan calls for more green projects across the city, including the planting of trees and gardens, increasing use of rain collection barrels on homes and reducing impervious surfaces.

“Every time it rains like tonight, our combined storm water and sewer system becomes overwhelmed,” said Andrew Bliss, Capital Region Water spokesman. “That untreated water ends up gushing into the river.”

The plan is the result of 18 months of community partnerships, in which Capital Region Water sought input from residents in every major section of the city including Uptown, Midtown, Downtown, Allison Hill, Bellevue Park and Shipoke. Brainstorming sessions led to prioritization of projects, and a comprehensive draft of practical ideas.

“The question now is, how do you pay for it?” said Bliss.

The answer could be the implementation of a impervious surfaces fee attached to city residents’ sewer bills. According to Bliss, sewer rates are currently determined by customers metered water consumption, not by how much water actually goes down the drain. While external storm water is what overwhelms the city’s aging infrastructure of underground pipes, the amount of water that runs off a property cannot be precisely determined. As a result, the cost of managing the runoff is spread out evenly among water customers. Many argue a impervious surfaces fee would be a fair way to fund green projects, for instance, placing more burden on the owner of a large parking lot who does not currently pay for water consumption, but creates a lot of nuisance runoff.

“I think it might be a decent idea,” said Kelly O’Neill, who lives in Midtown. “We have some serious problems here. We need to address them. Those serious problems come from paved parking lots, streets and other hard surfaces.”

As for when an impervious services fee could be implemented, Bliss says consideration has only just begun, and will continue into 2017. He adds that Capital Region Water sets rates independently of Harrisburg city government, but works with a volunteer panel of residents to identify needs for the water system. If a fee would be added to sewer bills to pay for green infrastructure projects, it would not be unprecedented, as several other Midstate communities have already adopted similar fees or taxes. Bliss says the fee also tends to act as an incentive for individual property owners to identify and correct poor storm water management practices around their homes.

“In some cities, they provide credits,” adds Bliss. “So if you install green projects, then that would provide a credit towards any type of sewer or storm water charges that you might have. And that is something that we’ll be looking at.”



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