Property owners in Wilkes-Barre, Pittston, Nanticoke and 33 other Luzerne County municipalities must shoulder the massive expense of an unfunded federal mandate to reduce the amount of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus deposited into the Susquehanna River from stormwater.
The Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority is pitching a regional approach, saying the 36 municipalities it services for wastewater treatment would spend far more developing and implementing required stormwater plans on their own.
This group approach will save even more money if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves the authority’s proposal to make the giant Toby Creek impounding basin off Division Street in Pringle the main component of its pollution reduction plan.
This basin holds water that drains from 30 square miles in the Back Mountain to prevent flooding in Pringle, Kingston and other municipalities on lower ground.
The authority wants to make the path of water more meandering inside the basin to slow it down and reduce the amount of sediment that ends up leaving the basin and ending up in the Susquehanna. Deep-rooted shrubs also would be planted on the basin floor to soak up nitrogen and phosphorus.
These and other details about the proposal were presented to the county Flood Protection Authority this week because the basin is part of the Wyoming Valley Levee system.
According to a two-hour presentation by sanitary authority consultant Herbert, Rowland and Grubic Inc.:
The mandate stems from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay plan requiring states to reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment in waterways that feed into the bay.
In response, the state Department of Environmental Protection is requiring all municipalities that drain water into the Susquehanna to submit stormwater permit plans by September, citing how they will reduce sediment 10 percent, phosphorus by 5 percent and nitrogen by 3 percent over the next five years.
Municipalities face fines if they don’t comply with the requirements, which include detailed maps of all stormwater systems and annual progress reports.
If a regional plan is submitted, all participating municipalities will receive credit for meeting sediment and pollutant reduction targets through larger projects outside their municipal borders.
The Toby basin work would satisfy 70 percent of the 10-percent sediment reduction requirement.
Other proposed work in the sanitary authority proposal includes:
• Pollution reduction alterations in a detention basin near Washington Street in Plymouth along with a “stormwater park” explaining the project, which would satisfy another stormwater public education requirement.
• Sediment reduction and other enhancements at Abrahams Creek near the county recreational complex in Forty Fort and another water collection area in Hanover Township.
• Stream restoration along Solomon Creek on the east side of the river.
The total cost of the project would be about $33 million.
The project expense would be covered by a fee estimated to range from $3 to $4.50 per property per month. Nonprofits and other entities that are exempt from real estate taxes would have to pay the fee.
Another monthly fee of up to $1 per month may be proposed to fund half of the cost pollution reduction projects municipalities want to complete within their borders.
The fee for each property would be based on the estimated percentage of stormwater runoff it generates. For example, the fee would be higher for a lot that is mostly paved, which is considered an “impervious area,” because it holds less water when it rains and snows.
Municipalities that want to go solo would have to spend an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 to complete the plans and additional costs to implement corrective measures, the consultant said.
The sanitary authority would handle the billing, maintenance of most of the pollution reduction solutions and stormwater system mapping.
The authority estimated its regional approach would save the 36 municipalities a combined 60 percent over the next five years and another 30 percent if Army Corps clearance is granted for the Toby basin work.
Bill Finnegan, the sanitary authority’s solicitor, said Wednesday a meeting will be held next week with representatives of the 36 municipalities to present documents they must submit if they want to participate in the regional plan. Public information sessions also are planned, he said.
“The public has to understand this is another unfunded mandate, and either their municipality is going to do it or the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority,” Finnegan said. “If the sanitary authority does it, it will be a fraction of the cost.”
The regional project would mirror the decision of municipalities to band together under the authority umbrella in 1962 for sanitary services, he said.
“We’re basically looking to do something similar, but dealing with stormwater mandates,” he said. “It would really be a historic project.”
After sitting through the flood authority presentation, Kingston resident Brian Shiner said he’s frustrated the federal government “pushes it on the back of property owners.”
“I understand and accept we have to take care of our natural resources. The problem is it’s so easy for these federal agencies to make mandates and not provide the cash to back it up,” he said.
Shiner said many property owners will struggle to pay the fee amid other rising expenses. He supports a regional approach but reserved opinion on the proposed plan until he receives more detailed breakdowns on the project costs and administrative expenses.
“It bothers me how rushed this is,” he said.
Officials in municipalities outside the sanitary authority coverage area also must develop compliance plans. Most Luzerne County municipalities are in watersheds that drain into the Susquehanna, which flows over 400 miles from its origin near Cooperstown, New York, and empties into the northern part of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.