Congress Requires Feds to Pay Their Fair Share to Clean Up Stormwater Pollution

America's rivers, lakes, and streams got an early Christmas present from Congress last week.  Before adjourning for the year, the House and Senate passed a bill that requires federal agencies to comply with local stormwater fees that are used to treat and manage polluted stormwater runoff.

Before this bill was passed, there was some uncertainty about whether federal agencies were legally required to pay stormwater fees.  Here in Washington D.C., for example, the federal government told our local utility, D.C. Water, that it didn’t want to pay the utility’s impervious surface area charge.  The revenues that D.C. Water collects from the charge pay for the maintenance of storm sewers that collect runoff. 

Every time it rains, water carries trash and pollutants from hard surfaces (like roads, parking lots, and roofs) into our waterways.  This polluted runoff is one of the reasons why our nation’s capital has some of the dirtiest urban rivers in the country.  D.C. Water needs to charge its stormwater fee so that it has enough money to keep runoff out of our water, and it sensibly decided to allocate the fee based on how much hard surface a property contains – because that directly relates to how much polluted runoff the property generates.

But the feds claimed that the fee was an impermissible tax on the government that they weren’t required to pay.  Since the federal government owns a significant percentage of the land within the District (about 20% of D.C.’s impervious area), this would have represented a huge loss of revenue for D.C. Water.  The utility would have had to hike up rates for every other resident and business in the District in order to cover its operational costs.  That just wouldn’t be fair.

This problem isn’t specific to D.C., either – it’s surfaced in other areas of the country where the federal government owns land.  According to one recent news story, federal agencies owe thousands or even millions of dollars in stormwater fees to communities as diverse as Lexington, KY, Aurora, CO, Tampa, FL, Seattle, WA, and Atlanta, GA.

Fortunately, the bipartisan bill passed in Congress last week – which was cosponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma – eliminates the controversy by making clear that the federal government is required to pay stormwater fees.  The bill does this by specifically stating that the fees are “reasonable service charges,” which the federal government is required to pay, and not taxes, which it isn’t.

As Senator Cardin said upon the passage of the bill, “At stake has been a fundamental issue of equity: polluters should be financially responsible for the pollution that they cause, including the federal government.”  In other words, the federal government is now held accountable to pay its fair share.  This is a good result both for revenue-strapped communities and for polluted rivers and streams across the country.