Griffin a National Model for Stormwater Solutions

By Sara Pilzer

Any official who visits a Georgia river, stream or creek after a heavy rain understands why Brant Keller is a wanted man.

Keller is director of the Griffin Stormwater Utility. The city of 24,000 is Georgia’s first local government to implement a practical – and successful – solution to one of the state’s most serious challenges in meeting federal water quality standards: stormwater runoff.

The problem, according to the state Environmental Protection Division, is that “Residential, commercial and industrial development has directly affected natural resource areas and wildlife habitats by replacing natural cover with impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete.”

“Rivers and streams are affected by erosion and sedimentation, stormwater runoff and municipal and industrial discharge.”

The goal of a stormwater utility is to provide a funding source equitable, stable and dedicated to managing a watershed approach for water quality and water quantity issues. Even better, a stormwater utility can be a tool for government to educate contractors and residents about their impact on water quality, hold them accountable for the runoff impact from their properties, and provide a financial incentive, ultimately, to use environmentally efficient construction measures.

The idea is catching on as the population of Georgia increases, especially in metro Atlanta which, according to census estimates, is attracting more than 500 new residents a day. Keller has made 120 presentations on stormwater utilities since Griffin’s was established five years ago, 70 of them to Georgia local governments. In fact, he says, “There isn’t a stormwater utility going in Georgia that I haven’t made a presentation to.”

Still, it’s slow going: Griffin’s was a five-year process from conception to reality. So far, there are just two more utilities in the state – Columbia County and the City of Decatur – although several others are conducting feasibility studies.

The mission statement of the Griffin Stormwater Utility is to promote the safety and wellbeing of the public, the protection of the environment, the encouragement of commerce and sound development decisions.

The program operates by charging property owners based on the amount of impervious surface, whether roof, patio, pool, parking lot or driveway. First, Griffin mapped and inventoried the entire 14 square miles of city and its 165 miles of roads on a geographic information system, a GIS. Then, it calculated the number of “equivalent runoff units” – ERUs – for each property, based on the square footage of impervious surface.

Commercial property owners are charged $3.50 per ERU – every 2,200 square feet of impervious surface. The city’s approximately 10,000 residential customers are charged a flat monthly rate of one ERU.

The money collected is held in an enterprise fund, all of which is dedicated to water-related improvement projects and operations and maintenance. For example, some of the money is used to construct regional water detention ponds or for land acquisition. The land acquisition includes the mitigation of land away from floodplains for houses so the floodplains can be used as a buffer zone.

Griffin, which contains six drainage basins and 39 sub-basins within its boundaries, has earned national, state and local accolades for its watershed-based approach. Of more than 400 stormwater utilities nationwide, Griffin’s is also the first to comply with the national standard set in Phase II regulation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. (Phase I applies to cities of 100,000 people or more, and Phase II applies to smaller municipalities and other urban areas).

In addition to the Clean Water Act of 1972, the utility program is designed to comply with the National Flood Insurance Program, the Water Quality Act of 1987, the Georgia Water Quality Control Act, and the Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act of 1975.

“The city of Griffin has become the case study for how to do it right, a national model,” says Roy Fowler, general manager of the Cobb County-Marietta Water Authority, the second largest purveyor in the state. (Cobb is working on its own stormwater utility plan.)

“They made it a function of service, not simply an additional tax. They are charging for the service they are providing.”

Absent a stormwater utility, municipalities must comply with the Clean Water Act by funding stormwater improvements from general revenues, such as property taxes or sales taxes, which are not predictable or stable revenue. With a stormwater utility fee, however, the cost of the remediation is directly allocated to the cause of the impact – impervious cover, in this case.

The importance of equitably charging all users remains the important concern in addressing the impacts on the system. In addition to shifting from general revenues to user fees, the stormwater utility rates incorporate some environmental impact in the cost of land development and will encourage more efficient land use while preserving property rights and limiting one-size-fits-all regulation.

Sara Pilzer, an intern with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, is a student at the University of Georgia. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 22, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors their affiliations are cited.