Viewpoint: Rising water bills require D.C. government action

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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)
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The Current’s Dec. 6 editorial “Water bills warrant action” highlights an emerging concern that affects every D.C. Water and Sewer Authority customer, not just nonprofits like Rock Creek Cemetery.

The Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (often called CRIAC) on your water bill pays for the $2.6 billion infrastructure that DC Water must install to remedy its acknowledged violations of the Clean Water Act. Like most older cities, DC Water’s combined stormwater and sanitary sewer system allowed polluted stormwater to run into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. That had to be fixed.

Through the impervious area charge, DC Water attempts to have those who are most responsible for stormwater runoff pay for their contributions to the problem. The amount that must be paid is fixed, however, so if one group of customers pays less, other customers must pay more. DC Water recognizes that future generations will benefit from this clean infrastructure, so they have also spread out the costs by issuing innovative 100-year bonds to finance the construction, which lowers the amount that current customers must pay.

Nevertheless, the impervious area charge has escalated dramatically — from $1.24 per Equivalent Residential Unit (a measure of the amount of a customer’s impervious area) in 2009 to $25.18 in 2018. Those charges are likely to at least double before they reach their peak, now projected for 2026. That will mean that many residential customers will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year, regardless of how much water they use. The burden of that fee will fall heavily on everyone but will be particularly onerous on lower- and middle-income families, seniors with fixed incomes, and nonprofit groups.

DC Water does assess the impervious area charge for the federal government’s facilities in the District. For instance, the National Park Service pays based on the amount of impervious area in Rock Creek Park, including roads and trails. Federal and District office buildings, universities, hospitals and religious institutions pay the fees as well.

In one conspicuous exception, however, the District government pays nothing for the largest contributors to stormwater runoff — streets, sidewalks and alleys. These impervious surfaces contribute about a quarter of all stormwater runoff, but the D.C. government pays nothing for the pollution it creates.

DC Water recognizes the hardship that the impervious area charge imposes, but it is constrained in the kinds of relief it can provide to customers. Some low-income water customers do have their impervious area charges reduced by half since they would be unable to pay the full charge, and the alternative — terminating water service — would be unacceptable. Any significant exceptions would, however, have adverse ramifications. For instance, if DC Water gave exceptions for nonprofits or any other worthy customer category, the federal government — which the District cannot tax — could successfully refuse to pay the impervious area charge because it would be deemed a tax, not a fee based on service. Moreover, if DC Water reduces any customers’ impervious area charges, other customers will have to pick up the slack.

It is clear that DC Water cannot solve the problem of unbearable impervious area fees alone. Water customers cannot and will not tolerate the kind of fee increases that are inevitable over the next decade. We could seek assistance from the federal government, which imposed this obligation through the Clean Water Act, but those prospects are virtually nonexistent in the current political environment. We could seek assistance from Maryland and Virginia since they are significant beneficiaries of clean rivers, but those jurisdictions are already chafing at paying their share for Metro. We should examine the experience in other cities, but there are no panaceas.

The mayor and the D.C. Council will have to address this dilemma, and the sooner the better. The District currently shirks its responsibility for the runoff caused by streets, sidewalks and alleys, and it needs to start contributing to clean water costs. It should effectively pay down the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge for all customers, with particular attention to those who can least afford it. That will require identification of a revenue source — no simple task — but spreading the costs broadly over all District taxpayers is the only tenable solution.

Randy Speck is chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase).