Getting More Bang for Clean Water Bucks
Some Sobering Facts for Tomorrow's Meeting of Bay Region Leaders

Stormwater Taxes Family's Wallet and Psyche

Jonathan and Elizabeth Stoltzfus examine sinkholeA hard rain fell all night in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Just before 7 a.m., Elizabeth Stoltzfus woke and trudged downstairs in her pajamas to prepare her five children for school.

That’s when she noticed flashing lights through her window.  Nudging aside the curtain, she saw people on her sidewalk stretching yellow tape in front of her house. The tape warned: “POLICE LINE -- DO NOT CROSS.”

 “I stuck my head out the door and people started yelling at me to get my shoes on and come outside,” Elizabeth recalled.  “When I stepped out, all I saw was a big hole in front of my house. It went down all the way to the foundation.  I yelled ‘Oh my God!’ and freaked out.”

Jonathan examines sinkholeA sinkhole, 16 feet deep and 10 feet wide, suddenly had opened in front of her house, yawning like a mouth big enough to swallow a car. The sinkhole was one of three that undermined houses on her block during the rain storm on October 11, forcing the evacuation of nine families, according to town officials.

Sink holes are an example of the damage that uncontrolled stormwater runoff can cause to homes, businesses, and roads through flooding and erosion, experts say.

Across the U.S., flooding causes over $3 billion in property damage and 150 deaths a year, according to the Federal  Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).  But about a quarter of the economic damage (or roughly $750 million a year) is not from hurricanes or rising rivers, but from uncontrolled suburban and urban rainwater runoff, FEMA reports.

“When you have development, you can have runoff that is either under-controlled, or not controlled –- and then during large rain events, flooding and related problems not only damage property, but can be a threat to life and health,” said Timothy Bruno, a watershed manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Police line on streetPalmyra, Pa., is particularly vulnerable to sink holes caused by flooding, according to borough officials. This is because the town of about 7,000 was built on a formation of limestone that runs through parts of central Pennsylvania and Maryland, and into the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

Acidity in water slowly dissolves limestone in these so-called “karst” formations, forming underground caverns. These caverns often fill with dirt. And then when rainstorms hit, water flushes out these soft plugs, creating sinkholes. 

CondemnedPalmyra Borough Manager Roger Powl said that although this geological formation contributed to the destruction on Oct. 11, the damage could likely have been avoided or minimized if the town had a stormwater control system under its streets. Such a system would have collected and piped away runoff so it would not have caused as much flooding, Powl said. 

The community in the past was reluctant to invest in runoff control infrastructure.  But starting this spring, Powl said, Palmyra is changing course and will start building a stormwater system that not only collects runoff but filters it to reduce pollution in streams that feed into the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay. 

After the evacuation from their damaged home, the Stoltzfus family was sheltered by the American Red Cross.  And then Elizabeth’s mother took the children into her home outside of town. Three of the kids tripled up in their  grandmother’s spare bedroom, while another slept in the basement.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and her husband, Jonathan, shivered for several weeks in a poorly-heated camper in the driveway. 

Family outside camperJonathan Stoltzfus said the displacement he and his neighbors suffered is a vivid illustration of why communities should invest in stormwater runoff control systems.  Stormwater fees to pay for these systems have been created by more than 1,400 communities across the U.S., including six in Pennsylvania (although not Palmyra); 17 in Virginia; and eight in Maryland because of a state law that required them on July 1. The Maryland stormwater law sparked a heated debate over whether such stormwater fees are necessary.

“It’s definitely important to take care of stormwater,” said Jonathan Stoltzsfus, a truck driver.  “I mean, take a look at what we’re going through.  There are a lot of people out of their homes here.  This is something that should have been addressed years ago. Now it’s finally time to get serious and really deal with the problem of runoff.”

If you think stormwater runoff fees are taxing, try camping for weeks -- in the cold -- on the driveway of your mother in law's home. Flood damage is far harder on people's psyches and wallets.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Family looks from porch




Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I've never owned a home where my storm water left my own property, and I object to paying for others who dump their problems on their neighbors downstream.

I thought the environmental motto was "We All Live Downstream" not "Socialists want Another Revenue Stream".

Pay for your own developement!

Do you drive, Paul? If so, you are using blacktop that creates polluted runoff. This runoff not only floods the private homes and properties of other people, but also pollutes the public's streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. It is only fair that we all pay our fair share toward solving a problem to which we all contribute.

Road taxes pay for roads, except when they're robbed for social programs.

They don't cover the whole cost of roads -- specifically, they don't cover the cost of controlling and filtering polluted runoff that contaminates streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Billions of MD road dollars are siphoned off for politicians pet projects. A quick Internet search will verify that.

Many of the filtration projects are a total waste. I spent forty years in the storm water business and can easily recognize when they are needed and when they are not. I passed a bunch of brand new filter beds in median strips just today. They were constructed in a median strip that has been filtering storm water naturally for decades. Obviously it's a make work project or some company wined and dined a politician. I see this sort of thing all the time.

Sewers are overflowing regularly with used syringes and medical waste dumping into our water ways but we spend money on filtering rain water and villifying efficient natural systems like septic.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)