Water going down stormwater drain in Macon
Caption
A whirlpool of stormwater catches trash in a drain during a summer thunderstorm. Beginning in 2022, stormwater management fees will be levied in Macon-Bibb County for residents, businesses, industries and churches.
Credit: Liz Fabian

After decades of Macon-Bibb County not spending enough resources to maintain its stormwater system, the Macon Water Authority is taking over.

For the past several years, county leaders have been negotiating with the authority to assume responsibility for the long-neglected sewer lines. The talks picked up after the Environmental Protection Agency discovered 21 stormwater violations in a 2018 inspection that resulted in $145,000 in civil penalties.

A 2016 study showed the county’s stormwater system was “severely degraded and at risk for failure.”

The authority’s existing role in maintaining water quality made it a natural fit to keep pollutants out of local waterways.

A recent survey that inspected 80 percent of the pipes and drainage systems in Bibb County showed 60 percent of the structures are clogged, said Tony Rojas, executive director of the Macon Water Authority, or MWA.

In just one of the county’s 55 identified problem areas, crews pulled out an upright vacuum cleaner, cyclone fencing and a trophy mired in a pile of silt and other debris.

“That’s going to be one of our challenges in unclogging the systems because it’s such a laborious effort. You have to pull all the stuff out and then vacuum it out,” Rojas said.

Wednesday was the last day the MWA could back out of their intergovernmental agreement signed with Macon-Bibb County in July of 2019. The option to nullify the agreement allowed the authority time to inspect the system and make sure there were no catastrophic infrastructure issues that would saddle the authority with multi-million dollar financial burdens for repairs.

Barge Design Solutions’ mapping and review of the stormwater system showed most of the system is the preferred concrete pipe that lasts longer than corrugated metal and the terracotta pipes and brick sewers downtown.

“It’s in better shape than they thought it was but there’s much more of it,” Rojas said this week. ”The concrete may have an even longer life since it was clogged up and not used as much.”

The authority voted in June to proceed with assuming responsibility for stormwater with Dwight Jones being the only vote against it in committee.

“My concern is that I don’t think it’s going to be well received with our industrial and commercial base,” said Jones, who also serves on the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority.

“There’s no way we can know the impact on a business,” Jones said during the discussion before the vote. “We’re having to be the bad boy for the county and come Oct. 1, the county is going to say ‘call the water authority.’”

Macon Water Authority
Caption
The Macon Water Authority agreed to take over Macon-Bibb County’s stormwater management at the beginning of 2021.
Credit: Liz Fabian

The MWA stormwater utility, which was approved by the state legislature, will be a separate entity from the authority’s water and sewer operation. More than two dozen employees will be hired for stormwater operation and management, Rojas said.

Annual costs to maintain the system could top $13 million.

Large industries, businesses and churches could bear the brunt of costs in managing and maintaining the stormwater system based on how much impervious surface they have on their property. Those with large buildings and paved parking lots will be paying the most based on an Equivalent Residential Unit or ERU.

Last month, the authority set the rate structure for the pending stormwater management fee, although they are still sorting out how customers would be billed each month.

Residential customers will be paying a monthly flat fee of $4.99 for the first three years and then the rate jumps to $5.25 the next two years.

Non-residential users will be charged that same monthly rate for every 2,200 square feet of impenetrable surface on their property. Some corporations will be paying tens of thousands of dollars each year.

While the water authority already was concerned about how the public would react to this new fee, the pandemic exacerbated their apprehension. They decided on a year’s grace period.

Customers will not be charged until January of 2022, although the authority is taking the reins at the beginning of 2021.

“The thinking was, now is not a good time for a fee,” Rojas said. “For the first year, we could provide the service and then that would give us time to show the value of the service and do more education and outreach.”

The onset of COVID-19 prevented the authority from launching its education campaign. Public meetings planned for last spring were impractical in the days of social distancing. Rojas also was reluctant to contact industry leaders who were focused on keeping operations going through the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus.

The authority had hoped to get the public’s input before the final vote on taking on stormwater, but that was not possible.

“It made us look at how we’re going to have to do the outreach, as well,” said Heather Veal, the authority’s project manager.

Virtual town halls are a possibility if the coronavirus lingers into next year.

‘It’s not a tax’

In the past couple of weeks, the authority began visiting some of the area’s executives to brief them on the pending charges and allow them to begin budgeting for the added expense.

While many major industries are familiar with similar charges levied in other parts of the country, Bibb County’s churches and non-profits that are typically exempt from taxes might be surprised to see these charges in 2022.

“It’s not a tax,” Rojas emphasized. “That will be an issue we will be dealing with. … It’s a methodology that looks to find an equitable way to determine how much someone contributes to runoff and therefore how much they should pay.”

Customers might be eligible for stormwater credits for proactive efforts to reduce runoff, but those details are still being worked out.

Now that the authority has accepted the challenge, they are still formulating plans concerning street sweeping, system maintenance and individuals’ responsibility to reduce the amount of litter and debris entering the storm drains.

Macon-Bibb County already makes it unlawful for anyone to sweep, throw or leave garbage, trash, dead animals or yard debris in the street or near a storm drain or gutter.

That goes for biodegradable grass clipping and leaves, too. The law specifically states that people using a mechanical leaf blower are responsible for collecting and disposing of any yard waste in a lawful and responsible manner.

Rojas said their strategy includes having street sweepers fan out across the county for a comprehensive cleanup before adopting a maintenance schedule to help keep the lines clear.

He warned that with the volume of silt and debris clogging the lines, the problems can’t be solved overnight.

“We know it will take time and obviously it will be a significant challenge for us,” Rojas said. “It’s a recognition that while the system has been neglected for a long time… it can’t be fixed in a day. That’s one of the things about this project we’re going to have to work with the public on is expectations.”