Mayor’s message: Why a stormwater utility?

Everyone has a new bill in the mail but not everyone knows what it’s for.

By Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps

Everyone has a new bill in the mail but not everyone knows what it’s for.

The City of Victoria is rebooting its Climate Action program. In a report from city staff earlier this year, we all got a bit of a wakeup call. For the most part Victoria thinks of itself as a green, sustainable place. While many are working hard to reduce their carbon footprint, overall the numbers are showing that we’re not on track to meet our greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 33 per cent less than 2007 levels by 2020. City operations account for only one per cent of GHG emissions while those generated through residents and industry comprise 99 per cent. And while the city’s corporate emissions are slowly trending downwards, the community’s emissions are actually going up.

It’s in this context of climate action and building climate resilience that the city introduced a stormwater utility. While the stormwater utility won’t significantly reduce GHGs, it’s a long-term and forward looking climate change adaptation strategy as the climate is already changing around us. The introduction of the new utility also makes paying for the stormwater infrastructure more fair.

The stormwater system is a network of underground pipes that takes rainwater runoff from impervious surfaces — roads, driveways, parking lots, rooftops — and returns it to the ocean. Like much of our underground infrastructure, Victoria’s stormwater infrastructure is old and in need of repair and renewal.

Until this year with the introduction of the stormwater utility, property taxpayers were funding the maintenance and repair of the stormwater system regardless of property type or its impact on the system. This means, for example, that even if a homeowner had installed cisterns or a developer of a new building had gone to lots of work to put in a living roof, raingardens, or rainwater-reuse infrastructure, they were still paying into the system in the same way as the owner of a property with mostly impervious surfaces and a larger impact on the stormwater system.

The stormwater utility puts an end to this unfair system and ensures — just like water consumption — that people pay for what they are using and don’t subsidize others. There is no new fee to residents. We were all paying for the maintenance and repair of the stormwater system before. With the creation of the stormwater utility we reduced the property tax bill by about $4.5 million and billed this amount through a user pay system.

When council approved the development of this new utility in 2012, city staff undertook an analysis of all properties in the city to calculate the amount of impervious surface on each property, and length of street cleaning frontage. The less impervious surface a property has the less the property owner pays into the stormwater system. We’ve also created a Rainwater Rewards Program (victoria.ca/EN/main/departments/engineering/stormwater/rainwater_rewards_program.html) to create incentives for property owners to divert rainwater from the system and to clean it, taking the pressure off the system for the long term.

This past October saw the highest rainfall on record, and while the new billing structure is not a tax nor is it proportional to the rain that falls — the capacity of the stormwater system is limited.

Reducing the amount of water entering the stormwater system increases the city’s resilience and reduces flooding risks. Climate change is already upon us. The stormwater utility — and the financial incentives that come with it — help us all to do our part in mitigating the effects of climate change and keeping our waterways and beaches cleaner.