Cache cities, hearing the clock tick, pool their expertise to protect water quality, control flooding
LOGAN -- Ain't no storm taking this town.
But the EPA isn't convinced. Stormwater has poured down city streets at speeds 20 times faster that ever seen in nature, peeling at times 40 tons of sediment per acre every year from individual construction sites.
It has ripped insecticides, road salt and motor oil from gutters and storm drains only to flush them at increased volumes into Cache Valley streams and canals.
It has lashed through canal banks, inundated homes and transformed city streets into urban rivers. The culprit may be stormwater, said Mark Teuscher, Cache countywide planner, but the cause is urban development.
"Stormwater run-off is an natural thing," said Teuscher, "but the problem we've run into is man's development. Parking lots, driveways, sidewalks and schools are all road blocks that hinder the natural process of run-off. But the EPA has now put the cities in a situation where they have to do something about it. As a community, we are standing at the beginning of a long road. And that road has to do with stormwater management."
Salt Lake City crossed that bridge in 1983 as severe flooding captured national headlines. As State Street River lapped at the doorsteps of Salt Lake residents, county lawmakers successfully launched a regional campaign to develop an improved stormwater management plan.
Almost two decades later, Cache Valley lawmakers are being forced to take similar steps. But this time, natural disaster isn't the incentive facing local communities -- it's the EPA.
On Dec. 8, the Environmental Protection Agency unleashed a new wave of stormwater requirements designed to curtail the environmental impacts of uncontrolled stormwater run-off.
Within three years, municipal leaders in Logan, Providence, Smithfield, Hyde Park, North Logan, River Heights and Millville will be required to develop management plans for reducing pollution at its source.
"The objective is to provide a comprehensive program in all urban areas to protect water quality by controlling storm water run-off," said Harry Campbell, stormwater coordinator for the Utah Division of Water Quality. "There are several areas in Utah where urban stormwater is highly suspect in water quality problems."
As defined by the EPA's mandate, more than 5,000 municipalities and 97.5 percent of acreage under development will be required to seek a stormwater management permit. The permit, read an EPA report, would require compliance with the following six standards.
Promotion of public education and outreach.
Encouragement of public participation and involvement.
Detection and elimination of stormwater pollutants.
Control of construction site run-off.
Stormwater management on sites of new development and redevelopment.
Prevention of stormwater pollution for municipal operations.
The mandate was approved, absent of any federal funding, to provide a means of pollution control. Rather than impose regulations governing the quality of water after it has reached the end of the pipe, the proposal is designed to address pollution before it enter the system, said Campbell.
The standards are vague, said Thad Erickson, coordinator of the Cache County Water Advisory Board, but will likely have far-reaching effects on communities throughout the nation.
"Stormwater issues are more like social problem issues than have been earlier water issues," Erickson said. "The parameters are harder to measure, quantify and address because they tend to be vague, unplanned, fuzzy and difficult to monitor."
Behind the scenes, however, is a fine-twined tapestry of questions and conflicts concerning the relationship between local municipalities and Cache Valley irrigation companies.
It's a matter of liability, a matter of funding issues to the table with representative from both sides.
"It is not a crystal-clear issue," said Teuscher. "There are a lot of things that need to be worked out."
But time after time, canal companies have taken a black eye as stormwater has broken through canal banks and damaged homes and property. The burden of financial compensation, canal repair and assurances of future flood prevention have all rested on the shoulders of the irrigation companies.
As municipalities expand, increasing volumes of stormwater are channeled into the system, raising the question of who's responsible for flood damage and water quality - the cities or the canal companies.
For municipalities, the canal system would provide an excellent, already-established drainage for stormwater, said Clark Israelson, president of Cache County Farm Bureau, if it were constructed properly. The problem, he said, is that stormwater and irrigation systems have been designed to opposite specifications to handle different types of water flow.
"When the irrigation system was designed, its first purpose was to deliver water to cropland," Israelson said. "Typically, those ditches become smaller at the end. By the time you reach the end of the system, you don't need as much water. The reverse is what you need for stormwater systems. As housing development comes in and stormwater issues have to be dealt with, it's easy for municipalities to channel the water into the irrigation system. But when it storms, the flow is restricted and the canal floods over. The homeowners are immediately after the irrigation company."
The cities are willing to provide maintenance, Israelson said, but liability is a point of discussion between the two entities.
For Cache Valley, the concern is two-fold: inheriting a flood control problem and increasing the financial obligation of the communities.
"In any negotiated situation there is a self-interest," Teuscher said. "But when Salt Lake City had water on its doorstep, the community was forced to work together to find a solution. We don't have that same incentive. So how do we find a mutually beneficial solution? The cities don't want to spend too much of the people's taxes, and the canal companies feel that stormwater is a liability. There are a lot of thinks that must be worked out. We just don't want to inherit a flood control problem."
As liability issues taunt lawmakers and canal company shareholders, another question arises: how should the two bodies come together to negotiate a solution?
Stormwater doesn't care who the mayor is or where the Logan-Providence boundary lies. It only cares about reaching the bottom of the hill, whether by gutter, canal or street.
"Stormwater doesn't care what cities it runs through," said Logan Public Works Director Kevin Hansen. "The water may originate in Logan, but it could easily run into Providence and the back into Logan. It creates a difficult situation for management. I think it is incumbent for us to look at the problem on a regional basis."
In a landmark decision in March, representatives from more than a dozen canal companies voted to move forward with the creation of a canal company consortium -- a body canal companies believe will represent their interests when negotiating with the cities.
"We need to have a united voice," said Jeffry Gittins, a representative for the Smithfield Canal Company. "Sometimes we assume that the municipalities know what we want, but I think we need to be more proactive."
Municipalities have taken similar steps, but have yet to create and official body.
"We need to look at the issue on a countywide scale," said Utah Rep. Craig Buttars, R-Lewiston. "If we work together on developing a stormwater management plan, we won't have to go through the same process over and over with each community. Many of the Salt Lake communities have already crossed that bridge. I think we should look at what they have done as a model for the steps we need to take."
Cache officials met in February to discuss the creation of a stormwater management district. If accepted, the district would represent communities throughout the county, serving as representatives for those municipalities when negotiating with irrigation companies.
Several alternatives have been proposed, but the project is still in its infancy.
"We need a body similar to the Cache metropolitan Planning Organization to work with other cities and come up with a plan," said Cache County Executive Lynn lemon. "The intent is to develop a plan that will tie into cities countywide."
Logan Mayor Doug Thompson said it is still premature to say much about the cities' progress.
One of the primary issues the city will be addressing is funding. Amid a flood of issues, ranging from liability expenses to monitoring construction site pollution, financing a stormwater management plan could be more complex that two plus two equals four.
The problem, Campbell said, is that no federal funding has been attached to the project.
"The program is the unfunded poster child of the federal government," Campbell said. "There is no federal funding. We recognize that it is a difficult program, but our position is to pursue compliance."
Several possibilities have been suggested along the Wasatch Front, said Erickson, but following suit with the implementation of a stormwater utility, which would be similar to electricity or water, has traditionally been a time-consuming process.
Stormwater utilities have taken root across the nation as communities attempt to generate additional funding.
Salt Lake City charges residents $36 annually for stormwater management. Portland has imposed a similar fee, charging residents a utility of $93.85. Provo formed a special service district to address the problem seven years ago. The city now accumulates $2 million per year in stormwater utilities. Sandy generate $1.5 million.
Lemon said funding has not been addressed in detail by the county, but he explained that tax dollars were set aside for stormwater management earlier this year.
Several other funding possibilities have been suggested for further discussion, including user fees, general tax revenue and flood taxes. The funding would be used for canal maintenance, pollution reduction, emergency reserves and water treatment.
Stormwater management issues have begun to lap at the doorsteps of Cache Valley residents, taunting them with issues of liability, funding, and increased negotiation between cities and canal companies. And by March 2003, the EPA has mandated that Logan, along with 5,000 other municipalities, have management plans in place for federal review.