Housing Complex

Cleaner Rivers, Higher Bills, More D.C. Jobs?

The Clean Rivers Project should keep sewage out of our rivers after storms, but at what cost?

If you're like most D.C. residents and use running water from time to time, you'll soon be paying more for the service. As part of DC Water's $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project to build huge tunnels under the city and significantly reduce the amount of sewage entering D.C.'s rivers, property owners will be slapped with a surcharge on their water bills. But here's the hitch: It won't be proportional to the amount of water you use, but rather the total impervious area (i.e., hard surfaces, including roofs and driveways) of your property—or, if you're a renter, your landlord may pass these charges on to you. This makes sense in two ways. First, it addresses the actual issue: The problem here isn't water consumption but stormwater runoff from hard surfaces, which overwhelms sewers during big storms. And second, it provides a good incentive: This'll encourage people to replace their asphalt with grass and other materials that safely absorb water.

But according to a report this week from the nonprofit Good Jobs First, this funding mechanism presents its own big problem—namely, it hits poor D.C. residents hardest.

"The DC Water Clean Rivers [impervious area charge] is a highly regressive fee that will have a disproportionate impact on low‐income residents and communities," says the report, which was commissioned by the Washington Interfaith Network—which has been critical of the Clean Rivers Project—and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. "The impact of the IAC—measured as a share of 2013 property taxes—will be four‐ to five‐times greater for homeowners in poor neighborhoods than for those in affluent neighborhoods." While District property owners already pay an impervious area charge, the report states that the average household's IAC will increase from today's $115 per year to $368 per year in 2021.

Generally, utility taxes are considered very regressive, since they affect everyone reasonably equally regardless of income. The IAC is certainly slightly more progressive, since it assesses a higher fee on people with more property, but it's still not as progressive as, say, a graduated income tax.

The report's author, Thomas Cafcas, says he's in favor of the Clean Rivers Project, but hopes to mitigate the economic impact on low-income residents. His solution: Get DC Water to hire D.C. residents for the big construction project.

"The choice we face is whether we allow jobs and resident dollars to flow out of the region or reinvest those dollars into jobs and paychecks at home," the report states. "If the Clean Rivers Project were used to provide underemployed residents with a foothold in the construction industry, the resulting benefits could more than offset those costs and create a healthy and sustainable environment for all the District’s residents."

DC Water spokesman John Lisle acknowledges that the project, which is mandated by consent decrees with federal agencies, will cause rates to go up and put a burden on poor Washingtonians, though he notes that "the larger your property, the more you would pay, and commercial property owners pay the lion’s share." But he says that some of this burden is offset by a customer assistance program that provides discounts to low-income ratepayers, and he says that job comparisons to other construction projects—the report states that "North Carolina is better represented in the Blue Plains contractor workforce than Wards 7 & 8 combined"—aren't fair given the nature of this work.

"We’re a little concerned about being compared with the building construction industry," Lisle says. "Some of the projects that we’re working on—thermal hydrolysis and tunnel boring—those are technical programs that require highly skilled employees, very different in many respects from general construction."

Lisle says DC Water probably couldn't agree to any arrangement that would require a certain number of jobs to go to D.C. residents, given the expertise needed for many of the positions. But, he says, DC Water is pursuing a modification of its consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice to allow for green infrastructure projects to complement Clean Rivers that would create more entry-level jobs available to D.C. residents—an idea that's also being pushed by the Washington Interfaith Network.

One interesting line in the report: "The system lets the primary users of the leading source of stormwater runoff in the District—streets and roadways—off the hook. By excluding public roadways from the IAC, DC Water is effectively subsidizing suburban commuters at the expense of District property owners who are forced to shoulder the entire burden of managing local runoff." This is certainly true, and it applies to a large amount of road building and maintenance in the country that subsidizes driving. But it's unclear exactly what can be done about it. D.C.'s Home Rule Charter prevents the city from levying a commuter tax, so the only real option would be for the city itself to pay an IAC to DC Water for its impervious surfaces, which presumably would then be passed onto taxpayers in the form of higher taxes. Theoretically, that could be a more progressive system than the IAC DC Water is proposing. But good luck getting the city to approve a big new citywide tax on all residents to pay for roadway runoff.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Actually

    Is DC WASA still planning on making no exceptions for rain barrels, green roofs, and other means that property owners are using to mitigate stormwater runoff?

  • http://www.dcwater.com/rates DC Water External Affairs

    @Actually - DC Water plans to have a discount program for the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge in place in Fiscal Year 14. Details on our proposed program can be found in the rulemaking here http://www.dcregs.dc.gov/Gateway/NoticeHome.aspx?noticeid=4303810

  • tntdc

    Commercial buildings are not charged for water pumped into the system from sump-pumps. Since downtown was originally marsh, many of the largest commercial buildings, including new ones, have tremendous sump-pumps. This is a huge use of sewage after rains and the law that prohibited them from being charged needs to be repealed and metering of sewer usage by commercial buildings started.

  • mark

    I'm confused by the proposed rules. If a homeowner captures 100% his storm water runoff, it looks as if he will only be entitled to 4% of the new fee back as credit? If that's true, it's not much of an incentive.

  • Actually

    So, based on the proposed regulations from DC WASA, the answer appears to be "no" - there won't be any exceptions for property owners that capture 100% of rainfall on their property. Instead, property owners can get up to a 4% rebate - assuming there are any funds available - regardless of how much rainfall they capture.

    The DC WASA regulations are as confusing as they can be and will ensure that average property owners have no idea what the requirements are or what they are entitled to.

    A cynic would say that this is yet another money grab by DC WASA - similar to their completely illegal requirements on homeowners to replace large portions of DC WASA' own pipes when doing certain property water pipe repairs.

    It's a shame there's no actual accountability over DC WASA's actions.

  • danmac

    DC WASA should make reducing runoff from roads with an accelerated program of bioswales and pervious surfaces by supplying the money to DDOT and employing DC residents for the work.

  • a change gon’ come

    This is complete bullshit. This is a major public works project. Didn't these used to be paid for by floating municipal bonds? I'm hardly an expert on city financing (reporter, aren't there options beyond individual taxation for this?), but this makes no sense to me.

    I didn't vote for DC Water to undertake this project, and they are not welcome to reach into my pocket to pay for it, especially since I live in Ward 8 and there is no apparent way for me or my neighbors to reduce this arbitrary tax. I'm surrounded by flat roofs, and no financing to make them green. And this is about water, ffs. Not an optional resource. What are they going to do when folks who can't do anything to reduce their whatever technical engineering lingo footprint can't keep up with these bills? Cut off their water? Bust 'em for stealing the neighbor's water? Further mess up stressed credit ratings? Watch landlords evict folks who can't afford higher rents? And the incentive program link is to totally non consumer-friendly documents. Not impressive, DC Water External Relations. Plain English, please. FAQs. You know, Internet stuff.

    This neo-liberal crap is totally out of control. Sure, improving DC's water infrastructure is a long overdue move, but this approach to financing it is stupid and mean. "Regressive" doesn't begin to cover it.

  • name

    I was originally against this as a homeowner, but if it pisses off Ward 7/8 and the poverty pimps, then I might just have to change my mind in favor of the program.

    Because if they're b*tching, they must be losing a heretofore free ride.

  • Eric

    My solution....I won't be buying in DC.

  • a change gon’ come

    @name. Your response reminds me of those white folks who filled community pools with cement rather than swim with black folks when desegregation kicked in. "Cutting off your nose to spite your face" is the proverb we use to teach children not to be self-defeating.

    I don't know where you got poverty pimps or free rides from. Poor people simply spend much more of their lower incomes on the basics of life, and have very small to no margins for big changes to the costs of those basics. I'm a homeowner, and board member of a homeowner's association, in Ward 8 -- yes, we do exist -- and I pay for water just like you do, as do my neighbors. For renters, landlords usually factor the water bill into rent, because it's usually a stable cost; gas and electricity are separate bills more frequently, because their usage varies with the seasons.

    Do you, dear, but if you do decide to support this program, please know there aren't any imaginary free-riders East of the River to justify your decision.

  • crin

    I society that puts necessary infrastructure improvements on the backs of the poor is a society that won't get their infrastructure funded sufficiently.

  • one idea

    The poor should not receive a discount on this program -- the point is to encourage residents to green impervious surfaces. The poor should be granted a share of the revenues set such that these residents would face the relative price increase of water, but be no poorer for it.

  • be frank

    1) require hiring a % of DC residents for all public infrastructure projects

    2) include a significant fine for not meeting these requirements

    3) put the fine money into job training that actually helps people get jobs

    4) implement this water project and pay for it based on these factors: home value & impervious surface

    5) list methods to reduce payments by reducing water flow into the system

    6) issue bonds that will be paid from fees. fees will end when these bonds are paid in full.

  • Mike

    Call it a Rain Tax - amazing how we get to pay for the mistake (lack of concern) of elected officals who never bothered to upgrade the water/sewer system over the last 100 years

    So basically we are paying this tax for homes/a city built over 100/200 years ago and who could care less about rain water runoff or polluted river - nice.