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Creating a Storm Water Utility in Chicopee, Massachusetts:
Project Praised as Outstanding Planning Project

 

 
Contact:
Jane Peirce
Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection
627 Main Street
Worcester, MA 01608
508-767-2792
Jane.Peirce@state.ma.us

The importance of storm water management in Massachusetts will undoubtedly increase in the coming years as Phase II of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) storm water management program goes into effect, requiring communities to take action to reduce pollution coming from storm water. The number of Massachusetts communities covered by NPDES storm water permits will dramatically increase from 2 to 191 when Phase II becomes effective.

In 1997 the Massachusetts Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the City of Chicopee, Massachusetts, received 319 funding to investigate the feasibility of creating a storm water utility. Like electric and water utilities, storm water utilities collect fees from residents to pay for a "product." The product offered by storm water utilities is storm water management to control or eliminate water pollution, erosion, and flooding.

Researching the legal framework

One of the first steps was to research existing utilities around the country to identify key issues. To effectively present the information developed to the public, it was neatly packaged into a "how-to" kit. The kit includes the research on storm water utilities across the country, summarized in an easy-to-read format for both a professional audience (briefing papers) and the public (graphical summaries). The first 500 copies of the how-to kit were in high demand. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is now producing 1,000 additional copies in anticipation of the interest in storm water management techniques that will accompany Phase II of the NPDES storm water permit program.

A critical part of the project also included reviewing Massachusetts' laws to determine the legality of creating storm water utilities. All Massachusetts laws and regulations pertaining to storm water management were reviewed and summarized in the how-to kit. A model storm water management ordinance was also developed and included in the kit.

Although it was determined that municipalities may create storm water utilities, the legal framework is weak and would be strengthened by state enabling legislation. Draft state enabling legislation, developed as part of the project, is being sponsored for the 2001 Massachusetts legislative session. When enacted, it will strengthen communities' authority to put storm water management utilities in place.

Chicopee pilot program

The project also involved implementing a pilot storm water utility or fee-based management program in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Chicopee is an old industrial city of 56,000 people. It occupies 24 square miles in western Massachusetts at the confluence of the Connecticut and Chicopee Rivers. Urban runoff and combined sewer overflows are the most significant pollution problems on the lower Connecticut River in Massachusetts. Chicopee straddles the two segments of the lower Connecticut River that do not support their use classifications.

Although the City of Chicopee did not establish a storm water utility per se, the city opted to incorporate storm water management into the existing Wastewater Department to save on administrative costs and take advantage of the expertise of the Wastewater Department's staff. Chicopee also passed an ordinance to collect fees from residents specifically for the purpose of managing storm water. The city conducted extensive research before instituting the storm water ordinance. Residents said that they would be willing to pay a new fee for storm water management if they were sure that the money would be used to address the problems directly affecting them, such as sewer back-ups during wet weather. The ordinance was therefore designed to address such concerns.

Instituting a specific storm water fee rather than increasing sewer fees to cover the costs of storm water management had two advantages. First, it meant that Chicopee could assess fees based on the amount of storm water generated by each property tied into the sewer system. Second, the city expects that over time, large storm water generators will begin to invest in best management practices and remediation measures to treat their storm water in order to reduce their storm water management fee, thus reducing the amount of storm water pollution being generated.

Chicopee's storm water management fee has been in place since December 1998. In the first year, the city raised some $400,000 for storm water management; by the third year, revenues had increased to $550,000. To date, the money has been used for activities such as stepping up cleaning of catch basins, purchasing a catch basin cleaning truck, grouting joints in the sewer system to stop leakage and inflow, stenciling storm drains, and cleaning sewer lines. Chicopee has also used the funds to leverage additional state loan funding for a $5 million sewer separation project.

A model of success

In fall 2000 the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the City of Chicopee were jointly awarded the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Planning Association's Outstanding Planning Project Award. The how-to kit and Chicopee's storm water management pilot have been widely presented as successful models, and interest in replicating these concepts in other municipalities has been high. The City of Holyoke, another old industrial community in western Massachusetts, is now actively working to develop a similar storm water management program.

The most obvious short-term results of this project are the production of a successful model to create storm water utilities (or, at a minimum, a fee-based storm water management program) and Chicopee's successful piloting of this type of program in Massachusetts. The fully researched, piloted example of how a municipal storm water management program can be developed and funded within the context of Massachusetts' laws, climate, and geography is a valuable tool that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection can now present as an option for Phase II communities.


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