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Stormwater Utility Vote Highlights Tension Between Urban, Rural Norman

Rural northeast Norman resident Leslie Rard at the end of her 500-foot gravel driveway. It's one of many hard surfaces on her five-acre property the city classifies as "impervious."
Brian Hardzinski
Rural northeast Norman resident Leslie Rard at the end of her 500-foot gravel driveway. It's one of many hard surfaces on her five-acre property the city classifies as "impervious."

Voters in Norman will decide on a stormwater plan Tuesday that would increase residents’ monthly utility bills. The city says the additional revenue will help deal with runoff created by heavy rainfall and property damage from flooding.

It would also affect the quality of water in the Canadian River and Lake Thunderbird. The lake is the city’s primary drinking water source. But rural residents like Leslie Rard are concerned they’re being asked to shoulder an unfair share of the costs without seeing much benefit.

Rard lives about eight miles northeast of Norman’s core. Her lengthy gravel driveway leads visitors to her five-acre lot just a few hundred yards south of the Oklahoma City border.

“I have never had my driveway hold water,” Rard said. “Now when we had the flood last year, I lost most of my gravel. It washed off to the side of the drive. So to call this impervious, I just don't think is correct."

That word – “impervious” – is a key part of the Stormwater Utility Plan. Residents would be charged based on the amount of hard surface they have on their property – things like roofs, parking lots, swimming pools, and Rard’s driveway.

“When it rains, it soaks in,” Rard said. “Down the center of my drive, it's grass. So basically just the tire tread area is gravel.”

But city engineer Scott Sturtz says Norman studied stormwater utility plans across the country, and didn’t find any with an exemption for gravel.

“When you use it for a parking surface or as a driveway, you have to compact it so that it doesn't just push out of the way,” Sturtz said. “And when you compact it, you fill those holes that the water would run through.”

When runoff flows over these hard surfaces, it picks up gasoline, motor oil, fertilizer, and debris, which goes untreated into Lake Thunderbird or the Canadian River. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies the lake as “impaired,” due to several water quality issues.

“Our water rate increase a year and a half ago helped fund the water treatment plant to keep the water cleaner from there into our faucets,” said Kate Bierman, a supporter of the stormwater utility plan and a volunteer with Norman Friends for Clean Water. “But we're not doing anything to clean the water before it gets to the lake.”

The city says it could face fines of up to $10,000 a day if it doesn’t meet state and federal water quality mandates for Lake Thunderbird, so it’s trying remedy things fast. Sturtz says the revenue would allow Norman to double its stormwater response.

"By adding that second crew, it means there's going to be more availability for people to get out and help with the ditch clearing, keeping the streams clear, and not have this backlog," Sturtz said.

The plan would cost residents $1.25 for every 1,000 square feet of hard surface area, plus an additional $1 management fee. For most people, that’s an extra $6 a month, but many rural residents saw estimates in the $50-60 range. Tax-exempt organizations like churches and schools won’t pay more than $300 a month.

Norman's Stormwater Utility Fee Estimator

Rard’s projection is $16, and she disputes how the city got that figure. In addition to her driveway, she also has a wooden balcony the city counts as impervious.

“It's decking boards with a quarter-inch gap between them, and I have a garden below it,” Rard said. “That will be one thing that I will have to also ask for a credit for.”

Most of Norman’s data come from aerial mapping, and there will be an appeals process for incorrect measurements, misidentification of impervious surface area, or property improvements if the proposal is approved. The city says the plan will raise about $5 million during its first year. That money will go to maintaining stormwater pipelines, complying with regulatory requirements, and neighborhood maintenance and flood relief projects.

“There are pipes that are over 90 years old that we've never been able to look at and inspect, because we don't have the money to even buy the camera equipment to get down into these pipe and see what the problems are,” Bierman said.

Norman resident Rebecca Bean, who's in favor of the stormwater utility plan, asks a question during an August 15, 2016 public meeting in the city council chambers.
Credit Brian Hardzinski / KGOU
Norman resident Rebecca Bean, who's in favor of the stormwater utility plan, asks a question during an August 15, 2016 public meeting in the city council chambers.

At a contentious town meeting last Monday, several rural residents voiced their concerns – about $40 utility bills for residents who don’t use city water, to whether the utility hike should be classified as a “tax,” to the runoff created by large homes on small, residential lots.

Watch the August 15 public meeting on the stormwater utility proposal

Bierman hopes the city will offer some exemptions to rural residents who have better water stewardship practices than urban dwellers.

“I think that organic farmer that has installed French drains, that doesn't use fertilizer, and rotates their crops deserves more credits than the agricultural producer who just simply has a large acreage,” Bierman said.

But Rard, who spent years as a secretary in the University of Oklahoma’s College of Engineering working with environmental and groundwater issues, said she doesn’t think Norman has the time, money, or workers to devote to the rural population.

“I can understand the people that want to vote 'Yes.' I can understand the people that want to vote 'No’,” Rard said. “All I can do is say that my experience out here with the city of Norman is they don't have the resources.”

Rard says she would like to see the city hire a hydrologist to study residential water usage, and to calculate a more equitable distribution of the costs. Her ideal plan would increase the water bill for those who receive more services than rural residents.

"A high-density apartment increases the amount of people who need water. They deleted a lot of the green space around them. They think that high-density is the way to go," Rard said. "Well, you're bringing in more people to Norman that need more city services."

If the stormwater proposal passes, the fee structure would go into effect November 1. Even though Rard and others plan to challenge any new utility costs, many rural families with fewer appeal options may be in a tighter spot.

KGOU produces journalism in the public interest, essential to an informed electorate. Help support informative, in-depth journalism with a donation online, or contact our Membership department.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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