By: Sutton StokesJuly 31, 2023

Working on Elkins Stormwater Issues

Recent high-volume rain events have underlined the need to improve stormwater management in Elkins. Elkins residents and property owners have been impacted by stormwater issues for some time, but these issues are becoming more acute as each new year seems to bring more and more sudden and intense downpours. City officials are actively exploring the best options for addressing these issues.

No Quick Fix

The conditions leading to these issues did not arise overnight and cannot be addressed quickly and easily. The infrastructure currently in place in Elkins is the result of decisions and growth stretching back more than 100 years. Although past generations did the best they could, they did not have the technology and tools we have today and were not always in a position to act with the clearest possible view of the long term. Systematic re-engineering and replacement will be a key part of any effort to improve stormwater management. It is also important to avoid “band-aid” fixes in one location that increase problems in other locations. In other words, creating a modern stormwater management infrastructure will take many years and cost tens of millions of dollars.

Limited Funds for Stormwater Management

Unfortunately, there is not an obvious source for the funds needed to fully modernize the city’s stormwater management. Currently, much of the city still relies on a combined sewer/stormwater system. In a combined system, storm drains connect to sewer pipes that in turn lead to the wastewater treatment plant. Because the plant can only process so much volume per hour, a combined system can easily become overwhelmed during heavy sudden downbursts. The city is in the process of a multiphase project to separate stormwater from sewer lines. (The second phase of this project was completed in 2022, and planning for phase three is nearing completion. Read more here.)

The Elkins sewer/stormwater separation process won’t be complete for the better part of a decade and will also cost many millions of dollars, but at least this effort has a clear source of funding, that is, the rates paid by sewer customers. However, because of laws requiring the strict segregation of the rates paid by utility customers, the city’s wastewater (sewer) system is actually not allowed to undertake major stormwater infrastructure construction. State law does allow our wastewater utility to fund the separation of stormwater and sewer lines. State law does not allow our wastewater utility to install new storm drains, repair catch basins, install new stormwater lines outside of separation projects, fund engineering projects to model stormwater management needs citywide, and so on.

Two Options for Progress on Stormwater

What does this mean for moving forward on stormwater in Elkins? There are really only two paths to addressing the stormwater issues currently facing the city.

Option 1: Stormwater Utility

Option 1 would be the creation of a stormwater utility. Nationwide, stormwater utilities are an increasingly common approach for managing stormwater and related issues. Like water and sewer utilities, however, a stormwater utility would have to charge rates, meaning Elkins utility customers would see yet another charge on their monthly bills.

Option 2: Stormwater Department in the General Fund

Option 2 would be to create a Stormwater Department within the General Fund. (Distinct from the Water Fund and the Sanitary Sewer Fund, the General Fund is supported by taxes and pays for non-utility government services and activities. Read more here.) Such a department would probably consist of just two to three employees, with additional personnel pulled in temporarily from other departments as needed. Although a Stormwater Department in the General Fund would not result in an extra charge on utility bills, it would compete with the many other services paid for within the General Fund: police, paving, code enforcement, and so on. (Keep in mind that the costs of a stormwater department include not just staffing but also engineering support, materials, etc.)

Standing up a Stormwater Department

To avoid the need for an additional utility charge, the city is currently focused on Option 2, standing up a Stormwater Department within the General Fund. The final shape of this plan is not yet clear, but it does seem likely that, with some reorganization and reallocation of funds, it may be possible to staff and equip a Stormwater Department without excessive impact on other city services and activities. Such a department would at least enable the city to respond to acute flooding issues and needed repairs with a great deal more agility than is currently possible.


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