Quad Cities Move Ahead with Stormwater Management Plans, but Davenport Sits in Limbo Print
News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 30 January 2001 18:00
After more than eight years of silence from the state, the City of Davenport is wondering exactly what happened to an application required by a federal environmental regulation. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the state agency administering the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation, has never issued Davenport a permit under the Stormwater Management Program. But in a bizarre case of poor communication, the city has failed to inquire about the status of its application, and DNR hasn’t bothered to tell Davenport that it’s disregarding its earlier filing. The city will have to go through the entire process again over the next two years.

Meanwhile, other Quad Cities are moving forward with plans to manage their stormwater under regulations for smaller cities that are set to take effect in 2003, and Davenport lags behind.

A representative of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told the River Cities’ Reader that this new regulation applies to Davenport, and the city will have to file a new application in 2003, re-doing much of the work it did a decade before. But the city sits idle, still waiting for a formal response from the state, as other municipalities push ahead.

In 1992, cities with more than 100,000 people were required to apply for permits to discharge wastewater as part of Phase I of the Stormwater Management Program. The regulation basically required cities to plan for stormwater facilities and maintenance, and how to pay for them, with the ultimate goal being cleaner water going into rivers and streams.

Davenport’s 1980 census count – the measure it claims was specifically cited in the Phase I rules – was 103,000, even though by the early 1990s the population had dipped below that benchmark. The city spent approximately $300,000 on its permit application, according to Davenport Public Works Director Dee Bruemmer, and sent it in to DNR.

The permit-application process required a variety of items, from education programs to a stormwater analysis to a map of stormwater sewers to make it easier to pinpoint problems. Cities were also required to identify or create funding sources for sewer maintenance to ensure that EPA discharge requirements were met.

But a permit was never issued, and the last correspondence the city received about the application came in 1997, when DNR wrote that it would review the application soon. That review is not going to happen, said Joe Griffin, stormwater coordinator for the DNR.

Griffin said Phase I determinations were supposed to have been made using the most recent data – the 1990 census – and by that count Davenport fell below the minimum population. “They are not a Phase I city,” he said. “They’re a Phase II.” That contradicts a recent Federal Register listing of cities covered by the first phase of the Stormwater Management Program, which includes Davenport. “They are listed there,” Griffin conceded, “and that’s incorrect.”

According to Griffin, only Des Moines and Cedar Rapids were covered under Phase I. Their stormwater-discharge permits were issued two years ago.

“We’re kind of in an odd place,” Bruemmer said. “We went through and did Phase I. … It seems like another lifetime ago.” But more important than the different interpretations of the regulation is that Davenport and the state have both been remiss in communicating.

Now the second phase of the Stormwater Management Program is about to kick in for cities smaller than 100,000 people, and Davenport will be forced to re-do an application. It just doesn’t know it yet. “We haven’t had a lot of guidance from our state,” Bruemmer said.

Some things the city did in applying for the Phase I permit were one-time activities, while others are ongoing. Those would likely not need to be repeated. But other components of the application might need to be re-done because of new development and stormwater patterns in the city, and those will cost money.

Bruemmer said she still has not initiated any formal communication with either the federal or state agency about Davenport’s status. “We need to do that,” she said.

Because of this years-long waiting game, other Quad Cities are ahead of Davenport in planning for the stormwater-management requirement. Moline, Bettendorf, and Rock Island are moving forward with plans to meet the federal regulations and pay for sewer improvements required by the stricter standards, but Davenport has identified no funding.

The permit application is just the beginning of the process. Under Phase II, cities are required to file their applications by March 2003. By March 2008, Phase II municipalities need to comply with federally mandated “best practices” in their management of stormwater.

Those practices will be expensive, and Davenport is alone in the Quad Cities in not having made progress on how to pay for them.

The issue of funding came up in Davenport within a few years of the original application. But the city council rejected hiring a consultant to do a rate study for a “stormwater utility,” a funding mechanism for the “best practices” that charges users of the sewer system based on how much land they own.

Similarly, the issue of an outside funding source for sewer maintenance came up last year within the Davenport City Council, but the issue did not specifically make the council’s list of top-10 goals for 2001.

That doesn’t mean that the issue won’t be resolved this year, Bruemmer said, but the goals provide some indication of where stormwater management stands on the city priority list. “That’s not something I direct my staff toward,” she said.

In other words, the rest of the Quad Cities are in much better shape than Davenport in terms of complying with the impending stormwater regulations.

Moline has already implemented a stormwater utility fee, which it began collecting in October. The fee was designed to be more equitable than property taxes, because some large property owners in Moline – such as The Mark and government agencies – are responsible for creating large amounts of stormwater runoff but don’t pay property taxes because of their not-for-profit status. Approximately 20 percent of land in Moline is property-tax exempt, said Lisa McCluskey, the city’s public-information officer.

Moline could have waited another few years to create the fee, but McCluskey said the city didn’t want to rush itself. “We’re a little ahead of the curve,” she said. “We didn’t wait until the last minute.”

The fee will generate roughly $700,000 a year for the city, McCluskey said, and costs property owners with less than a quarter acre (approximately three-quarters of all homeowners) $16 a year, billed quarterly.

Moline is one of about 200 cities nationwide to have instituted a user fee to pay for monitoring and maintenance required by the environmental regulation. “This allows us to accomplish the objective without burdening the general fund,” McCluskey said.

Bettendorf, meanwhile, has decided to pay for stormwater management through its existing property-tax base.

Rock Island is just beginning the process, evaluating its 100-year-old system and looking at funding alternatives. “We’re at the early stages of it,” said City Administrator John Phillips. “We’re trying to get a better handle on our stormwater system.” The process includes creating a detailed map, showing where water enters the storm-sewer system and where it goes. The city will eventually make a decision on funding alternatives.

The complicated rules are causing headaches all around the country. “We are trying to understand them,” Phillips said.