Impervious surface fee makes progress

standing water

On November 27, 2023, Hamilton County’s Impervious Surface Fee (ISF) Advisory Group voted unanimously to recommend to the Hamilton County Commissioners that they adopt the ISF. This is a key step in the process of getting final approval by the County Commissioners.

Readers will be excused if they only vaguely remember what an Impervious Surface Fee is, and why it matters. After all, the issue was first raised as a recommendation of the Rate Affordability Tax Force in 2016, and the work for the past 2 years has been mostly behind the scenes. But Sierra Club has been actively advocating for the ISF and has been a core member of the Advisory Group, so here is a quick refresh.

The core question is whether the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) should charge customers based on how much wastewater goes down their drain, or how much stormwater runs off their property. For Sierra Club, the answer is “Both.” MSD’s sewer system collects large volumes of both wastewater and stormwater, and while wastewater is more in need of treatment prior to discharge, much of MSD’s budget is driven by the need to handle huge amounts of flow on the rainiest days. An analysis of MSD’s budget done by MSD shows that about half of their annual expenses are driven by the need to treat wastewater, and the other half is driven by the need to accommodate stormwater. And yet, right now, MSD’s monthly bills are based only on how much wastewater goes down the drain. They charge nothing for stormwater leaving the property.

Why does it matter? Why is the current system a problem? Two reasons:

  1. Equity. Residential properties tend to use a lot of potable water and generate relatively little stormwater runoff. Commercial and industrial properties are more likely to have large buildings and large parking lots, while using minimal amounts of tap water. The current system forces residential properties, including low-income residents, to subsidize large commercial and industrial landowners.

  2. Efficiency. The current system gives landowners no incentive to hold stormwater where it falls, forcing MSD to manage increased storm flows in its system. In many cases, on-site solutions (detention basins, bioswales, pervious pavement, etc.) are the most cost-effective way to manage stormwater, but instead, MSD is forced to invest in bigger pipes, pumps, and treatment plants. And with intensifying storms driven by climate change, it is especially important to reduce the amount of storm runoff. Already, in a typical year in Cincinnati, about 5,000 buildings are damaged by overland flooding and sewer back-ups.

What’s the solution? An impervious surface is a surface that doesn’t absorb water, like a roof, a parking lot, or a driveway. With an impervious surface fee, MSD would determine how much impervious area each parcel contains and impose a fee based on that number. The landowner would receive a credit for structures that reduce the amount of runoff from the property. This fee would be set at a level that covers MSD’s cost to manage stormwater – about 50% of their budget. At the same time, the fee MSD charges on wastewater would be cut approximately in half, to cover MSD’s cost to collect and treat wastewater. An impact analyses has been performed on this proposed fee structure. It would significantly reduce MSD’s bills for most residential properties, including most low income customers. It would increase rates for commercial and industrial properties with large areas under roof, and large parking lots.

Is an ISF controversial? When an ISF is adopted, many residents will see their MSD bills go down substantially. Landowners with big buildings and big parking lots will pay more. Some large landowners are likely to object. But the ISF Advisory Group convened by the County includes a range of stakeholders, and its recommendation in favor of the ISF was unanimous. The Advisory Group members include: Sierra Club; Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce; Cincinnati Building Owners and Managers Association; League of Women Voters; Citizens United For Action (CUFA); the Archdiocese of Cincinnati; and others.

What you can do? Call, text, or email the Hamilton County Commissioners and key staff members at the County and MSD. Tell them that you support the Impervious Surface Fee. Encourage them to move forward quickly and adopt the fee. Here is their contact information:


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