Staff Editorial: City must protect cemeteries, nonprofits from soaring water bills

Mayor Muriel Bowser, center, was among the officials to experiment with permeable pavement installed in Brightwood. (photo courtesy of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority)

Summer’s many ferocious storms — with rainwater overrunning streets and rushing into drains — may have faded from memory, but stormwater is drawing attention in D.C. even as fall turns into winter.

Starting in October, NBC4 ran several stories about the “Clean Rivers” stormwater fee that has led to ever-larger water bills for D.C. ratepayers. Particularly compelling is the outsize effect on the city’s cemeteries.

Because the fee is calculated based on the amount of impermeable surface, cemeteries can face particularly high bills. Parking spaces, roadways and rooftops all count toward the figure. So do mausoleums.

For Ward 4’s Rock Creek Cemetery, the stormwater fee accounts for the bulk of what’s now a $200,000 annual water bill. Officials there say the fee could force them to close the cemetery.

In the wake of media coverage, Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd introduced legislation to exempt the 18 cemeteries in the District. The council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, chaired by Ward 3’s Mary Cheh, held a hearing on the subject of increasing water bills and is considering ways to help other nonprofits hit by the fee as well. Officials at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority have also vowed to consider potential ways to make the fees more equitable, while highlighting the need to collect the same amount of revenue.

That’s because the money is sorely needed to construct the infrastructure to stop stormwater surges from burdening the sewer system to the point that overflow valves send raw sewage spewing into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers as well as Rock Creek. The construction work includes massive tunnels beneath the city able to store rainwater until sewer flows return to normal levels. The project also includes efforts to add “green infrastructure” that helps water permeate into the ground.

We’re glad that the recent attention to the impact on long-standing community institutions such as Rock Creek Cemetery has led to lawmakers and DC Water officials examining ways to improve the fee’s implementation. It’s unfortunate that so much of the burden falls on residential and commercial customers because Congress has not committed more funds to the Environmental Impact Agency-mandated project. Thankfully, the water agency is able to collect the stormwater fees from the many federal properties in the District.

While the attention is welcome, the need for solutions is urgent. Nonprofits burdened by the cost — particularly when they have ample green space that reduces the impact on the city’s storm sewers — need relief in all haste. The D.C. Council and the DC Water board of directors need to implement solutions expeditiously.