(This is the last in a series of articles exploring the city’s approach to stormwater infrastructure and dealing with runoff. Previous articles dealt with flaws in the city’s foundational stormwater definition and issues with funding mechanisms.)
An involuntary fee — charged to homeowners and developers based on impervious cover — is not necessarily the best way to address the city’s stormwater needs.
Are there other methods to obtain the roughly $17.5 million needed to fund Colorado Springs’ stormwater division?
A SALES TAX
Consider all the generators of stormwater runoff that must be managed — to include compliance with federal permits —the revenue source that is easiest to manage and fairest to local residents is a new sales tax. Under current revenue streams, a 1 percent tax brings in slightly more than $50 million per year. Colorado Springs should consider a new sales tax between 0.3 percent, which would bring in $15 million, and .35 percent, which would bring in $17.5 million. This sales tax should only extend for 20 years, but would be free of almost all city and state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requirements.
CHARGING STORMWATER GENERATORS
If Colorado Springs decided to fund its stormwater program by charging each generator of stormwater runoff, funding would be a mix of taxes.
Vacant Land. Fund the vacant land contribution to stormwater runoff with an ad valorem tax. Do not increase property taxes on vacant land, instead take a portion of the property taxes the city receives for vacant land and, through an internal administrative process, reallocate that portion of taxes to the Stormwater Program.
Roads. A city sales tax should offset the contributions roads and sidewalks add to stormwater runoff.
Groundwater Seepage. An ad valorem tax should fund the contributions from groundwater seepage. The city should just charge for the value of the land, however, and should exclude property improvements.
Underdrains. The city should fund the underdrain program through a “voluntary fee.” To make it voluntary, existing homeowners should be able to opt out. Homeowners who opt out of the fee can waive rights to compensation should the city underdrain system fail. The city could also require homeowners to install an exterior sump system negating the need for homes’ perimeter drain system to be connected to the city’s underdrain system. For all new homes, the city should require a connection to the city’s underdrain system and require homeowners to pay an underdrain fee.
Waldo Canyon Burn Scar. In addition to the runoff from the burn scar, there is considerable sediment and debris that must be removed. The U.S. Forest Service should pay for most of this work.
CSU water and wastewater effluent discharges. CSU should reimburse the city for its contribution to the volume of water in Monument and Fountain creeks.
Monument and Fountain creeks. The governmental entities that add stormwater runoff, water or wastewater effluent into Monument and Fountain Creeks — that Colorado Springs must manage — should contribute money to maintain the creeks.
Improved land. All remaining land with improvements should pay for the stormwater program through an ad valorem tax, but only on the value of the land. The city should exclude property improvements.
Nontaxable land. City, county and state land — as well as school and nonprofit land — should be exempt from all stormwater taxes and fees. Residents currently pay taxes or make voluntary contributions to these entities. It doesn’t make sense to require these entities to pay into the city’s stormwater program only to turn around and ask for more taxes and voluntary contributions to offset whatever these entities must pay.
Another funding approach would be to consider the various expense categories, such as administration, operations and maintenance and capital projects.
Administration. It could be argued that this component of the city’s Stormwater Program should be funded by an ad valorem tax based on the land value of properties. A case could be made that the taxes could also include the improvements to that property. Since there are so many generators of stormwater runoff, in addition to property owners, a stronger argument could be made that the administrative costs should be funded through a city sales tax.
Operations and maintenance. Colorado Springs should fund the maintenance for streams, creeks and the man-made stormwater infrastructure through a city sales tax.
Capital projects. Due to the many generators of stormwater runoff, and the large backlog of work that needs to be done, a sales tax would be the fairest and most appropriate funding mechanism for the city’s stormwater capital projects.
STATE WATER LAW
The Colorado water law was created before the state’s rapid development and should be amended to reflect urbanization. For instance, in the Pine Creek Drainage Study, the channel flow rate for a 100-year storm on undeveloped land was 949 cubic feet per second, while on developed land they calculated an increase of 6,554 CFS, a 700 percent increase in water flow that the folks with water rights downstream benefit from, but the city pays to manage.
From the Northeast Douglas County study, the author concluded that only 3 percent of rainwater is retained on vacant land; 2 percent becomes runoff, while 1 percent seeps into the ground.
Developed or urbanized land will produce more runoff and the additional amount generated due to development should be allowed to be retained by the property owners. Why should a municipality have to pay to manage the additional runoff — and then release it — when this additional runoff can be used by the municipality?
If the property owners cannot retain the “excess” precipitation on their land, but water rights holders obtain increased benefits from development, shouldn’t they be required to pay for the additional water?
I understand CSU treats and discharges about 37 million gallons per day of effluent into either the Monument or Fountain creeks. Of this, about 10,000 gallons per day is reclaimed and transferred into its nonpotable water system.
The city owns all of the water it is discharging — water that impacts creeks’ stability — and water that is a bonus to downstream users. Colorado Springs should work some type of arrangement with the state engineer to trade off water that is retained in retention ponds with water discharged from its treatment plants. The water in the new retention ponds could be used for irrigation of city parks, sold to golf courses or used for any other beneficial purpose where nonpotable water is acceptable.
Since the law allows runoff to be held up to 72 hours, the city should require developers to design detention ponds so that they retain stormwater runoff for a longer period.
Doing so greatly reduces the impact on downstream creek flow during storm events.
Vince Rusinak, an Air Force Academy graduate and licensed engineer, can be reached at email@example.com.