The Legislature passed and Gov. Phil Murphy quietly signed last month a law letting local governments and authorities create stormwater utilities and charge residents a fee to pay for them. It was opposed by Republicans and all legislators in this region’s first and second districts.
Towns and counties already have stormwater management systems, mainly networks of large pipes that gather rainwater from street gutters and send it into the nearest waterway.
These systems often haven’t been updated or even properly maintained in New Jersey, where the bulk of tax money is spent on people, inside and outside government. Stormwater systems are estimated to need $16 billion to fix, equal to almost half of the state’s annual budget.
Politicians don’t want to be associated with the Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, even if they voted for it, for good reasons. One is that the fee would be a new tax for residents already overtaxed and facing possible additional new taxes in the state budget currently under negotiation.
Another is that foes of the fee quickly named it the “rain tax” rather than the runoff tax, implying that the zeal for taxes had reached nature and acts of God. The fee actually would be levied on impervious surfaces that prevent rain from being absorbed into the ground as nature or God intended, and residences and businesses would be charged based on how much of their properties is covered by such surfaces.
A runoff fee is a well-designed tax, in use in 40 other states, to discourage a specific behavior that causes problems. Rain running off properties is the biggest source of pollution in New Jersey’s streams, rivers and bays. On its way to the storm grates, it picks up fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, oil, pet feces and other pollutants, and these too get deposited in the nearest waterways.
Some stormwater systems also put human sewage into waterways and, unsurprisingly, New Jersey has a big share of them. In cities with combined stormwater and sewage systems, heavy rain can cause sewage to overflow into the stormwater pipes and into waterways instead of sewage plants for processing. The federal EPA estimates New Jersey’s combined systems discharge more than 23 billion gallons of sewage into waterways annually.
Of the nation’s 84 municipalities that haven’t upgraded their systems to stop this from happening, a quarter of them — 21 — are in New Jersey. The cost of upgrading them alone is estimated at $10 billion or more. Fortunately, they nearly all serve North Jersey cities, with only Camden and Gloucester City still using combined systems in South Jersey.
The Jersey Shore does have its own runoff challenges, though. Barrier-island municipalities tend to have high percentages of impervious surfaces — paved, covered with buildings, even with buried plastic to discourage weeds. These send pollution into the bays and ocean, and are the major cause of the degradation of Barnegat Bay in Ocean County.
The new law doesn’t specify the amount of the fee nor how stormwater utilities should use such revenue. Presumably it would be spent fixing or replacing stormwater systems and creating buffers to absorb rain water.
Since the greatest need is in the cities with combined sewer systems, expect stormwater utilities and fees to fall on them first.