With the city’s April 2 stormwater utility and bond vote expected to be set by the city council on Tuesday, many questions still swirl around the issue. While the citizen stormwater committee has been effective in educating many residents through its six open houses and the city council and staff have engaged in public outreach efforts for months, many residents still have a muddy understanding of the stormwater issues facing the city.
Last week, The Transcript reached out to Stormwater Program Manager Carrie Evenson to explain the problem and how the new stormwater utility fee aims to address it.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about stormwater?
A: I would say the biggest misconception that’s out there is just because your house doesn’t flood doesn’t mean stormwater isn’t an issue for you. Stormwater, stormwater maintenance, stormwater conveyance, it affects everyone in the city, regardless of where you live. Everybody has to have some sort of system to move excess water away from their homes and businesses and get it to our creeks and streams. Any of that public infrastructure that is installed to move that water is the responsibility of the stormwater division to maintain it, whether it’s a concrete pipe, channel, or drainage ditch or culvert out in Ward 5, it’s all something that my division has to maintain. It affects everyone.
Q: Why is more stormwater funding needed in Norman and what will Normanites get out of the proposed stormwater utility and bond?
A: Stormwater funding is needed in Norman to address several issues. When the stormwater citizen committee has talked about and given their proposal they really view the bond and the utility as a funding package, because Norman needs both infrastructure improvement, which would happen through the bond (stream bank stabilization, culvert upsizing and things like that), as well as funding for additional maintenance and water quality related activities, which the utility would fund.
If this funding package were to be approved, it would help [the stormwater division]. Just to give you an idea of how lean the stormwater division operates on the maintenance side, I have three total crews for maintenance of stormwater infrastructure in 190 square miles in the city of Norman. That includes hundreds of miles of stream channel, miles and miles of stormwater pipe, channel maintenance, etc. So, there is a lot of infrastructure that has to be maintained with just those three crews.
Q: The need for maintenance and infrastructure makes sense, but what’s the issue with Norman’s water quality? What kind of pollution will the stormwater utility help you address?
A: The pollution that you may be familiar with when you hear about chromium and arsenic and things like that, that’s really a groundwater issue. It’s naturally occurring in our geology around Norman. That’s not something that we’re dealing with with stormwater. When we talk about water quality as it relates to stormwater pollution, we’re really talking about nutrients, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorous, and we’re talking about sediment from different sources. Those are the three primary pollutants that we focus on when we talk about water quality aspects and that’s really driven by the Lake Thunderbird Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. I’m sure people are starting to hear more about that and we’ve been educating on that for the past couple of years.
Lake Thunderbird is impaired, which means it’s not meeting water quality standards and its beneficial uses. So, the three cities that contribute stormwater runoff to Lake Thunderbird are under a state mandate through the TMDL to reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that we’re sending to Lake Thunderbird through our stormwater runoff by 35 percent.
Q: How would improving stormwater funding help Norman address the state’s water quality mandates?
A: The way the utility helps us with the Thunderbird TMDL is it helps us to educate the public on what they can do to lessen the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment that they contribute to stormwater runoff through proper use of fertilizer, picking up dog waste and things like that.
It also allows us to look at our monitoring data and assess where we may need to put in actual treatment type structures — we call them structural best management practices — like regional detention ponds or rain gardens or other types of devices that actually remove these pollutants from stormwater before it’s discharged to our creeks and streams and ultimately gets to Lake Thunderbird. That is part of what the utility would fund.
It also helps us to better enforce, and have the personnel to better enforce the ordinances we have, like the manufactured fertilizer ordinance ... Having the ability to educate people on that and to make sure that the lawn companies that are applying it in Norman are following through with our requirements in the manufactured fertilizer ordinance, that’s how the utility can help us there.
Q: How does polluted stormwater runoff affect Norman’s drinking water?
A: There are two things there when you talk about the water you drink, whether the water you drink comes from the Norman water treatment plant or it comes from a well.
If you look at the water cycle, all of the water we have on Earth, that’s it. There’s no new water being created. If we pollute a source of water to such a degree that we can’t treat it anymore then we’re limiting how much water we have for the future. Our drinking water treatment plant is always going to do what they need to do to treat our water to provide us with a safe, quality drinking water supply.
That’s their job and they do it really well. But when we pollute our stormwater we make their job harder because they have all of these additional pollutants that they have to remove to provide safe drinking water to Norman’s citizens. And if we’re polluting our stormwater, well surface water and groundwater are connected. If we’re polluting our surface water, depending on where that groundwater-surface water connection is, there’s potential to have contamination of our groundwater because through the water cycle we know that surface water can recharge groundwater.
Q: What does all of this mean in the context of water sources and water rights in the future?
A: When I teach my intro to environmental science classes, one of the things we talk about is water and its role in human society. If we don’t have water we can’t survive. So, water, in terms of quantity and quality, is likely to become more of an issue and more of a concern as we move through the centuries. There’s the potential for our population to grow and water to become more scarce, and, in particular areas where there is drought, it becomes a question of how we’re going to get that water and how much are we going to pay or what are we willing to do to make sure there is enough water to survive.
Q: So, in that context, it seems like Norman has a vested interest in pursuing more stormwater management measures, not just because of the TMDL, but because of the long-term perspective for Norman’s water supply. Is that accurate?
A: Exactly. And our utilities department has been thinking about and continues to plan to make sure that we have an adequate water supply to continue to grow Norman and continue to provide quality water. They definitely do a great job of that. We just want to be able to help them on the stormwater side to continue to provide a less polluted stormwater source.
Q: Why do you think there is still public resistance to the stormwater utility?
A: I think, as it relates to certain perception on stormwater, stormwater is tough when you talk to folks because as long as it goes away from your house and you don’t see it flood your own back yard or your house, you don’t really think about it. It goes down the street through those drainage ditches and out into the storm inlets and it goes away. Most people don’t worry about it. So, often when people are thinking about what stormwater services they receive they’re not as noticeable. They’re not as up front as road construction.
When you do road construction, you know when your road is being rebuilt because you can see it. Stormwater infrastructure isn’t always like that. If we have to close a bridge to do maintenance people will see it and recognize that that’s a service that they’re getting from the city, but if we’re just going out to clean out a bar ditch or make sure that culverts are flowing or clean debris from around a bridge we could be in and out in a day while people are at work and they won’t really notice what the maintenance crews are doing to keep stormwater flowing in the city.
I think it’s really a perception issue. It’s hard for us to be [as visible] but we are doing it.
Q: If voters do approve a stormwater utility, what will that mean for the stormwater division?
A: I will put any funding to good use and fix some of the problems in Norman. I’ve told several people in these meetings that I’m a problem solver. If you come to me with a problem I want to be able to fix it. If we have additional sources of funding, however the citizens and council choose to provide that to us, we will definitely put it to good use to help to solve Norman’s stormwater problems.