Instant runoff

Going Green
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 6, 2012

The city is considering a new stormwater fee that would help pay for improvements and maintenance to Portland's old and overburdened wastewater system and in doing so, keep raw sewage, industrial waste, pesticides, oil, and dog crap (some call it a "toxic soup") out of Casco Bay and other local waterways.

As it stands now, Portland's wastewater system comprises three different types of pipes: those that carry sewage only, those that convey stormwater runoff (from roofs, roads, and parking lots), and those that collect both types of waste in a combined-sewer line. It all works relatively well in dry weather. But when it rains heavily (and as you may have noticed, we've gotten a lot of rain recently), the combined-sewer pipes can't handle the increased volume of sewage plus stormwater, leading to "combined-sewer overflows" — a/k/a dumping raw sewage into Back Cove and Portland Harbor. Yup, that's right. Fecal matter, pathogens, and industrial chemicals, flowing untreated into the ocean.

Not surprisingly, the federal government has mandated that Portland eliminate combined-sewer overflows. Since 1993, the city has been working (to the tune of about $120 million) to reduce overflow from 720 million gallons per year to 420 million gallons. Now we need $170 million more to get the flow down to 87 million gallons a year.

Starting in November, the city plans to build five underground, concrete storage tanks that will hold two million gallons of combined-sewer overflow apiece during what engineer Brad Roland refers to as "one-inch storm events." The first one to be constructed, below Payson Park, will collect from three combined-sewer pipes that spit out 20 percent of the city's overflow. "About 90 percent of our rainfalls are less than an inch," he points out. After the rain subsides, wastewater collected in the storage tanks will be pumped to the East End Wastewater Treatment Facility to be processed as usual. Similar tanks will be installed on the other side of Baxter Boulevard, on Marginal Way, on West Commercial Street, and near the Fore River pump station (across from the Jetport).

Portland residents and business owners currently pay a sewer-use charge spent only for wastewater system repairs and maintenance (sewer rates have paid for much of the improvements thus far). But without astronomical increases, those charges won't be enough to cover what needs to be done.

So, the city's Sustainable Storm Water Funding Task Force, chaired by city councilor Ed Suslovic and made up of environmentalists, business owners, and residents, is recommending that Portland implement a "stormwater use charge" based on a property's "impervious area" (i.e., those surfaces that cannot absorb rainwater). Fixes to the city's combined-sewer problem would be paid for in a 50-50 split between sewer and stormwater fees.

On Monday evening, the City Council considered the proposal in the first of several workshops. The task force, which came to a unanimous recommendation, claims that the new fee system increases equity.

"Right now the only people who pay is the sewer users," says Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne. "It's completely out of whack with what you generate." For instance, a parking lot incurs little-to-no sewer fees, but creates a significant amount of stormwater runoff, even while paying nothing to the system.

To acknowledge efforts by businesses and homeowners to reduce runoff, the task force also recommends offering credits, rebates, and incentives for "green improvements" (like using rain barrels or planting rain gardens that slow runoff).

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