Flood of funding coming for stormwater resiliency

Ask any stormwater utility manager and you’ll hear that the capital budget they prepare each year often falls short of the true flood protection needs their community has. As storms increase in intensity and frequency, the infrastructure needs those stormwater experts see are growing. It’s a case of not enough funding and competition for resources with other critical municipal programs.

The American Society of Engineers (ASCE) 2021 Infrastructure Report documents this underinvestment, saying clearly that infrastructure has historically not been prioritized in federal funding and infrastructure bills. This leaves communities vulnerable to the consequences of extreme weather events. But as the water continues to rise, the tide may be changing. We’re seeing more attention focused on stormwater and flood protection from both the federal and local level.

According to the ASCE report, the current state of the stormwater management industry is one of aging infrastructure, chronic underinvestment, and increasing regulatory costs. Existing stormwater infrastructure has been chronically undermaintained due to a variety of factors, such as high maintenance costs and limited resources. Failure to properly maintain stormwater systems leaves communities at higher risk for urban flooding. One of the major recommendations from the ASCE report is to focus on resilience.

The problems of stretched budgets and deferred maintenance are only exacerbated by the effects of climate change. The increase in the number and magnitude of storms has placed an unprecedented burden on existing stormwater systems that were not designed for storms of current scale. Even communities with no history of flooding are now facing flooding problems.

An example of a new stormwater funding approach

A different approach to financial planning is critical for utilities to prevent or become more resilient to floods. Most utilities are not prepared for storms of a higher magnitude and will need to re-prioritize their budget to allow for disaster recovery.

Now is the best time for municipalities and stormwater utilities to take a more proactive approach to planning and access more funding. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act brings a historic level of federal investment in both flood prevention and flood recovery projects. Federal loans and grants can be a great resource to jumpstart a program or large project.

We’re working with utilities to do just that—get the funding in the door to build infrastructure to protect the people and property in a community. For example, New Hanover County, NC used the increased availability of federal funding in a unique way. The county was ready to go-live with a stormwater fee when COVID-19 struck. While pausing go-live for a year, new federal funding became available, New Hanover County decided to use the funding to go-live in 2021 with a reduced rate of $1/month. While this rate was a temporary one and is expected to increase in 2022, the decision was supported by a community still dealing with the impacts of COVID-19. Other local governments can also take full advantage of the increased availability of funding to help kick-start their stormwater utility.

Of course, building the projects is step one, maintaining this infrastructure requires a dedicated funding source, and that’s when  a municipality should consider whether a stormwater utility is the solution. Having a utility set up allows municipalities to pay for maintenance after the projects are complete. If a utility already exists but doesn’t provide adequate funding, now is a good time to consider restructuring or reviewing rates and rate structures to expand stormwater services.

Some communities are already becoming more accepting of stormwater rate increases, as they have begun to deal with increased flooding. People affected by these floods are recognizing the need for investment and want to see their municipalities deal with these issues. In other communities, strategic public outreach and communication will be critical for utilities to gain their communities’ approval. Building community trust in their existing programs and future expansions can help municipalities justify a new or higher rate.

Stormwater programs should be careful in setting community expectations to maintain such trust long term. Communities must understand that the increased funds will be directed into improving infrastructure needs, allowing for an increased resilience to flooding, having a positive impact on public safety and quality of life. Even dramatically higher levels of investment, however, are unlikely to eliminate risk entirely.

Now is the time for municipalities to re-evaluate their stormwater programs and focus on long-term community and financial planning to be prepared for their next extreme weather event.