D.C. Water and its rising rates

D.C. Water is informing residents to expect to see rising water bills. (photo courtesy of D.C. Water)

With costly federal mandates in force at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, officials are warning customers to expect rates to rise until they peak in 2026.

That is according to Tommy Wells, chairman of the D.C. Water board and director of the District’s Department of Energy & Environment. Wells addressed residents at the Nov. 27 meeting of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase), where he had been asked to discuss the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC).

This surcharge is intended to offset the costs of rainwater that runs into the city’s storm sewers from rooftops, paved driveways, patios and other impermeable surfaces. The fee for each property is based on a D.C. Water estimate of the impervious areas located there.

Wells said the age of the district’s water and sewer system – parts of which date back to the Civil War era – is responsible for the high rates.

When the infrastructure was built, it handled both sewage and stormwater runoff, unlike the more modern systems that separate wastewater from ordinary rain. During heavy rains, the total capacity of rain and sewage overwhelms the city’s Blue Plains Treatment Plant, which allows raw sewage to spill into local waterways.

To comply with the federal Clean Water Act, the District reached a consent decree in 2005 requiring the construction of enormous tunnels to store the sewage and stormwater mix at a cost of $2.6 billion. After the rain stops, Blue Plains can then work through the untreated backlog filling the tunnels.

“The only way to fix it is to build underground rain barrels to hold water. Thirteen miles of tunnel tilted towards Blue Plains,” Wells said. “What is the source of the $2.6 billion? Our bills.”

He said the bonds funding the project are not the usual 30-year variety.

“D.C. Water got one of the first 100-year bonds in the history of the United States,” Wells said. “Every user for the next hundred years will pay, not just this generation.”

ANC 3/4G Chair Randy Speck said the District government does not have to pay fees for much of its impervious areas, such as streets and alleys.

“The city council should say, since we’re not paying our fair share, we should buy down the rates,” Speck said.

Non-exempt ratepayers have raised concerns about the impervious area surcharge. In addition to ordinary homeowners, particular complaints have come from religious groups that maintain graveyards in the District, including the Episcopal Church’s Rock Creek Church Cemetery and the Roman Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery. According to a Nov. 29 article in The Catholic Standard, the D.C. diocesan newspaper, Mount Olivet, paid fees of only $6,478 in 2009. This year Mount Olivet will pay $126,810. The same article states that Rock Creek Church Cemetery has seen a 6,000 percent increase in the same period.

Donald Cardinal Wuerl, head of the Archdiocese of Washington, wrote in a Nov. 28 blog post that Mount Olivet is working with the Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/D.C. chapter to reduce the amount of impermeable surface in the cemetery.

“The project, which includes removing unused roads to create an environmentally-friendly oasis, will increase the beauty of the cemetery with new gardens and trees, and improve water quality in the Anacostia River and Chesapeake Bay by retaining rain water on the grounds,” Wuerl wrote. “Consequently, there should also rightly be a substantial reduction in the fees charged on impervious areas by the D.C. government since those surfaces are being eliminated.”

Craig Muckle, a communications official with the Archdiocese, was also invited to address the ANC 3/4G meeting. He said the churches want to be a part of the solution to environmental problems.

“We want to pay our fair share,” Muckle said. “We are not looking for an exemption. We want to be helpful. But the faith community is the second line of social services for the city. These astronomical fees mean less money for social services.”

Muckle called it ironic that cemetery roads are not exempt from the impervious surface charge, but city streets are.

Wells said he feels the pain of the cemetery managers and owners.

“The water board did not realize how much this would cost cemeteries,” he said. “We may be able to exempt cemeteries. That’s my recommendation to the board.”

At the meeting, Wells mentioned another concern regarding funds for D.C. Water’s infrastructure.

“People are using less water because of low-flow fixtures, and they use less water because of higher bills,” he said. “Water usage generates revenue, but usage is down — which lowers revenues.”

Residents of Spring Valley West and Foxhall Crescents have been especially hard-hit by the impervious area charge due to peculiarities in the development of the neighborhoods. The property lines extend to the middle of the street and include the sidewalks. With that, the water bills paid by homeowners in those areas include the impervious area charge for those streets and sidewalks.

Residents seeking relief from D.C. Water got a boost from their neighborhood representatives in the form of a letter to Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh.

Members of ANC 3D (Palisades, Spring Valley, Kent) voted unanimously at their Dec. 6 meeting to urge Cheh and the city council to take legislative action that would exclude street and sidewalk areas from calculations of the impervious area in Spring Valley West and Foxhall Crescents.

The letter to Cheh explains how the unusual situation came about.

“These neighborhoods were built through unique development plans 30 years ago, in which each homeowner is also the nominal owner of the public sidewalk and the street, out to the street’s center, in front of each home,” the letter says.

At the ANC 3D meeting on Dec. 6, Spring Valley West resident Christopher Mitchell noted that use of the streets there is not limited in any way and feels they should be treated as any other resident living on a public street.

“The streets in these areas are fully used by the whole neighborhood,” Mitchell said. “They are a cut-through from Dalecarlia Parkway to Massachusetts Avenue.”

Mitchell noted that he and his neighbors in Spring Valley West pay for their own snow removal and trash collection.

The letter to Cheh says the higher water bills residents are paying are “an unintended consequence of the agreement between the city and the developers. Neither the developers nor the homeowners could have foreseen that D.C. Water would impose an IAC or that the IAC calculations would be so expansive and punitive as applied to these residents.”

ANC 3D Chairman Stephen Gardiner opposes the charge across the board.

“I have challenged the right of D.C. Water to impose these charges,” he said. “I think it’s a tax, not a user fee.”