Commentary

Hamilton Needs Fair Pricing for Stormwater Management

It's time for Hamilton to take a serious look at changing its unfair funding system for stormwater runoff management.

By Ian Borsuk
Published June 08, 2016

Stormwater runoff may not be in people's minds much, unless it ends up in their basements, but in the coming years that's going to change. Climate change is creating extreme weather across the globe, ranging from stronger hurricanes across our oceans to extreme droughts in places like Syria and California.

For the Golden Horseshoe, which Hamilton is part of, we're going to be seeing extreme rainfall events - or I should say even more of them. Heavy rainfall that cannot be managed naturally by slowly soaking into the ground ends up in our stormwater management system.

When that system is overwhelmed by runoff from impervious surfaces like parking lots, it not only degrades our infrastructure and floods basements, it pollutes our environment from our streams to our harbour.

Our stormwater management system already needs upgrades and constant maintenance. With increasing frequency of major storm events on the horizon, the system will see even more increased costs.

Unfair Stormwater Management Pricing

If Hamilton wants to be resilient in the face of climate change, we have to put aside talk of "rain taxes" and take a sober look at how we currently fund this system. As we do, it becomes apparent that the way we pay for stormwater management simply is not fair.

As it stands, the majority of funds our stormwater management system gets comes from our water bills. Homeowners, renters and business owners have been rightfully trying to conserve water through changing habits and installing things like low flow toilets.

The problem with this system is that those who contribute the most to the strain our management system through maintaining impermeable surfaces are contributing the least in funding. As director of Water and Wastewater Operations Dan McKinnon said to Council last October:

One of the fundamental reasons where I talk about equity in stormwater rate is where a Costco or a Home Depot has a tremendous influence on our stormwater system. Their contribution to stormwater system is significant, but I don't sell them very much water. So I don't think they're paying their share from a stormwater perspective.

If you go downtown Hamilton and you see a parking lot, I don't sell them any water. If it's paved, the contribution to the stormwater system is significant. So all the other folks who are just on a 50 by 100 foot lot getting a water bill every year, they're subsidizing all those other properties from a stormwater perspective.

This gets at the heart of the matter when it comes to cities preparing for climate change: change needs to happen but it has to be equitable.

Time to Change Stormwater Pricing

We need cities to provide incentives for property owners of all kinds to reduce their burden on our management system, from something simple like installing rain barrels, to replacing impervious asphalt with porous materials.

Impervious paved asphalt parking lots in downtown Hamilton (Image Credit: Anita Thomas)
Impervious paved asphalt parking lots in downtown Hamilton (Image Credit: Anita Thomas)

It's possible and preferable for the city to both adequately prepare our system while at the same time lessening the strain it will experience.

Other municipalities are doing just this. Kitchener, Ottawa, Mississauga, and others have either already changed their stormwater funding structure or are well on their way to doing so.

It's not just Hamilton City staff and environmentalists calling for changes either: insurers are keenly aware that we need to do more to prepare for flooding events.

We just need our city councillors to see this too. This is why Environment Hamilton is collecting signatures (physically and digitally) encouraging council to take up the task of pursuing fair fees for our stormwater management system in Hamilton. If we are serious about addressing climate change, this is a step we need to take.

More info and an online petition can be found here:

Ian Borsuk is a young community organizer and activist. He is a Climate Campaign Coordinator at Environment Hamilton.

5 Comments

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Read Comments

[ - ]

By jorvay (registered) | Posted June 08, 2016 at 13:58:26

Though I generally agree with this article, I think for the sake of fairness it's important to fill in one blank that's missing here. When a Costco or Home Depot (to use the quoted examples) is proposed, the City does require that the design adhere to pretty strict storm water restrictions on both the quality of water and quantity. As a result, those developments tend to include on-site facilities that clean oils and polluting particulate matter from storm runoff (quality) and that hold water during storm events so that they can be released into the municipal storm sewer at a much lower rate, preventing the downstream system from being overwhelmed. As a result, the runoff from one of those sites is probably closer in character to an undeveloped field than to what you'd expect to see from a fully-paved/built site.

However, that says nothing of the need for developing an maintaining sprawling municipal storm infrastructure that serves an ever decreasing density of users. It's the same problem we have with roads, sanitary sewers, and watermains: low density development doesn't pay their fair share for maintaining linear infrastructure. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the problem is not that these developments are heavy users as much as it is than they are average-but-underpaying users.

Permalink | Context

By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2016 at 21:26:12 in reply to Comment 119171

But the examples were given by the director of Water and Wastewater Operations, so whatever strict restrictions are in place are clearly not strict enough if he is calling for changes...

Permalink | Context

By jorvay (registered) | Posted June 09, 2016 at 07:42:13 in reply to Comment 119193

You're right. Dan McKinnon is right on the money but he's pointing out the same thing I was attempting to clarify: they are average users who underpay compared to higher-density users. I'm only trying to make it clear that, at least for developments within the last 15-25 years, they are not overburdening the system any more than other land uses. They just aren't paying as much as many other (arguably better) land uses would because of how little water they use relative to their size.

Permalink | Context

[ - ]

By GWW (registered) | Posted June 08, 2016 at 17:29:35

I was under the impression that the charge that accompanied the water bill was for sanitary sewer management not stormwater management, as it is directly related to water consumption and a certain portion thereof ends up in the sanitary system. Areas like the Meadowlands in Ancaster where there is a Costco have a massive stormwater retention system put in place by the developer. A much bigger issue in the City of Hamilton, is in the old inner part of the City there are combined storm and sanitary systems which in a bad rain event lead to discharges right into Hamilton Harbour. Massive storage facilities have been built over the last twenty years costing probably over a $100,000,000 but the problem still isn't solved. This is paid for by all taxpayers, not just the inner City area where the problem originates from.

Comment edited by GWW on 2016-06-08 17:30:53

Permalink | Context

By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted June 08, 2016 at 21:50:50 in reply to Comment 119192

I don't think it's a good idea to downplay this problem or try to blame lower vs upper hamilton.

Areas outside of lower Hamilton are not immune to this. Take a look at the PFOS problem - the water has to go somewhere. Ultimately, any run off that ends up in one of the mountain creeks that collectively create our "city of waterfalls" will make its way either to the woodward treatment plant or to the bay/lake.

Meadowlands may have an adequate stormwater management system (I don't know for sure but I can believe it because it's a newer development), but what does the system look like at limeridge mall, upper james canadian tire, or the thousands of other malls, plazas, parking lots and warehouses whether up the escarpment or down?

Rebuilding the entire sewage system is obviously not realistic within the current budget. Prevention should be encouraged, and proper stormwater charges are a means to that end. Small changes on the part of thousands of property owners will go a lot further than trying to manage it at the end of the funnel.

Permalink | Context

View Comments: Nested | Flat

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to comment.

Events Calendar

Recent Articles

Article Archives

Blog Archives

Site Tools

Feeds