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Stormwater permit costs log up into tens of millions.

The nation's larger cities and counties are now spending an estimated $130-140 million to prepare applications for permits to comply with the 1987 federal mandate directing these communities to secure systemwide National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for their municipal separate stormwater systems. This application cost estimate was released this week by the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies (NAFSMA).

Earlier this year NAFSMA initiated a nationwide survey of the 220 larger cities and counties that were listed in the U.S. EPA's November 16, 1990 regulations as meeting the statutory threshold--a separate storm sewer system serving more than 100,000 people--requiring these communities to apply for systemwide NPDES permits. It is now estimated that approximately 180 of the 220 listed jurisdictions will actually be seeking permits under these regulations, given population errors, the presence of combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and "early permits" approved in the states of California and Nevada. Responses to the NAFSMA survey from 101 of these affected communities offer new information and data on the cost impacts of this requirement and other developments across the country.

The average of cost of a permit application for a city or county is approximately $760,000, a cost impact that well exceeds U.S. EPA's application estimates of $50,000 for a system serving a population of 100,000-250,000 and $75,000 for a system serving a population of more than 250,000. Given the backdrop of local fiscal conditions, it is unreasonable to assert that these communities expended resources unnecessarily. On the contrary, these application costs underscore the complexity and scale of the undertaking now underway in the nation's cities and counties as they tackle the array of issues before them in confronting municipal separate stormwater system pollution.

The survey results also tell us that we are only seeing a portion of the actual resources now being expended for these permit applications by local governments. Nearly one-third of the respondents (30) indicated that their jurisdictions were participating with more than 290 other jurisdictions and agencies as copermittees in a regional municipal permit program. In almost every case, the cities and counties joined with coapplicants that were below the 100,000 population threshold. The costs of preparing these applications are not included in the NAFSMA estimate. Also excluded from the cost estimate are numerous jurisdictions in the larger urban counties in California that are now operating under early permits. The 1990 census will add another 30 or more cities and counties that are now excluded from this estimate.

While the survey's estimates of costs are dramatic, these additional costs, if quantified, represent a substantial demand on local government resources. What we see in the application costs does not account for permit compliance costs, it is simply the paperwork that will support permit-writers' efforts to develop permit limitations. The American Public Works Association report, which is discussed in a related story, offers a chilling glimpse of the future and what stormwater permit compliance and controls might mean. We are in the process of launching a significant new area of public activity and committing local resources that up to this time policy-makers do not fully appreciate or even comprehend. The study also revealed that despite considerable fits and starts with the municipal stormwater program and substantial anxiety about what lies ahead, cities and counties are responding to this mandate in a timely manner. The survey found that 73 or 75 city Part 1 applications were filed on or before the deadline. About the same number expect to file Part 2 applications on or before the deadline.

It is important to note that the regulatory program for large and medium municipal separate stormwater systems is the only aspect of the federal stormwater program that has not been modified since the November 16, 1990 regulations were released. During 1991, for example, the industrial facility permit requirements were the subject of two separate U.S. EPA rulemakings and two Congressional actions.

The survey did not attempt to estimate costs of compliance with the ultimate permits, since the APWA efforts was initiated at roughly the same time as this survey on application costs. However, respondents that did offer estimates on permit compliance clearly indicated that the costs of compliance will be significantly higher than the application costs. In responding to a question on how funds for compliance would be generated, half of these respondents indicated that new revenues would be needed and half planned to utilize existing revenues.

The momentum to improve the quality of municipal stormwater discharges is not likely to change. Local governments should support and indeed encourage best management practices that improve stormwater quality. However, the pervasive nature of the top down, federally-mandted NPDES permit approach should be changed. It should be made more flexible to lessen the financial burden on local governments and their citizens who will be asked to pay for all of these controls.

L. Scott Tucker is executive director, Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, Denver, Colo.
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Author:Tucker, L. Scott
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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