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Stormwater Runoff Fees Get Property Owners' Attention

Looking down on urban Honolulu from the air, we see a landscape in flux. Our watersheds and ahupua‘a are being transformed rapidly into a series of rooftops, roads, and parking lots that are directly connected to our oceans. As rain hits these hard, impervious surfaces accumulated pollution is transported via storm drains directly into our near-shore waters without any filtering or treatment. Over long periods of drought, a watershed accumulates a suite of pollutants that includes but is not limited to gasoline, oil, fertilizers, pesticides, sediments, animal waste, soaps, plastics, and cigarette butts.

After these longer dry spells, the first inch of rain that falls (called the first flush) carries all of that accrued waste into storm drains and out to ocean. Simultaneously, we are losing the ability to re-charge our fresh water supplies as runoff has no way of infiltrating into soil and groundwater aquifers. Water security and the protection of our most lucrative natural resources are major issues the state of Hawai‘i must address in the immediate future.. As the population of Hawai‘i approaches 1.5 million and the demand for housing and jobs increase, the consequences of urbanization will only increase – unless we find innovative ways to restructure our growth.

Over the past two years, a group led by the Surfrider Foundation, Hawai‘i Community Foundation, State Legislature, and input from additional non-profits, environmental consultants and scientists, Department of Health, and the City and County of Honolulu has worked to find the best solution to these increasing pollution problems. This May, the State of Hawai‘i helped complete step one by passing House Bill 1325, giving state level protections to the cities and counties of Hawaii to begin charging stormwater user fees.

The bill, which was signed by the Governor in June, does not require fees, but lays the groundwork to establish stormwater utilities (SWU) in Hawai‘i. A business or homeowner would pay a monthly fee based on the amount of hard or impervious surface they have on their lot. However, should the land tenant take steps to control the runoff on their site by installing low impact development infrastructure like a Surfrider Ocean Friendly Garden, they would have the opportunity to reduce or eliminate the fee they pay.

Research indicates that SWU’s are spreading across the country with over 1400 being put into place as of the beginning of 2015. By providing an equitable, dedicated funding source for municipalities to work on runoff pollution cleanup and prevention, as well as incentivizing users to make their homes and businesses stormwater neutral, cities can begin to address the side effects of urbanization.

While the SWU will provide a transparent funding source to help with pollution, it is the incentive to recreate our cities that is the most exciting. The Surfrider Foundation and its Ocean Friendly Gardens program aims to do just this by helping homeowners create gardens that collect rain water onsite using the concepts of CPR: Conservation, Permeability, and Retention. It’s simple to do: conserving water by using drought tolerant native plants, creating permeable, living soil and permeable hard surfaces, and retaining rainwater in the landscape. This will allow them to avoid ever paying any of the fees while simultaneously being part of the solution to our runoff pollution and water supply problems.

Surfrider is not alone in promoting these early outreach and low impact development techniques. Hawai‘i is equipped with other non-profits like Permablitz Hawai‘I and Hui o Ko‘oluapoko and design firms like Roth Ecological Design that specialize in rain gardens and green infrastructure that span from the residential to big business scale. (Surfrider is teaming up with Permablitz to create Surfblitz, creating a simple garden in a day, like the OFG Garden Assistance Party model.) The creation of the SWU will serve to stimulate this sustainable design field, thus providing more jobs and opportunities for our residents to be trained and employed. The future can be green here in Hawai‘i and the passing of HB 1325 is an important first step towards protecting our oceans, beaches, waves, and marine ecosystems from runoff pollution.

Thanks to Rafael Bergstrom, Surfrider-Oahu Chapter Coordinator, for writing this story!