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County considers utility fee to pick up the tab for storm water program

After a heavy rainstorm the air typically smells fresher, the ground seems renewed and flowers beam a little brighter. But there is also a dark side to eastern Washington rainstorms.

Yakima County Commissioner Ron Gamache, who oversees the task force working on storm water management for the county, noted that in eastern Washington since rainstorms are so few and far between that when the fat water droplets begin to fall they can wash weeks and even months worth of road grime and contaminants off the roadway and into the ground.

"It's more concentrated pollution," Gamache said, adding that Yakima County has been working on dealing with storm water drainage since 1999.

"We've been at it for quite awhile," Gamache said.

He noted that studying storm water drainage is something the Endangered Species Act requires regions like eastern Washington to do. Gamache explained that it is a subject those on the west side of the state have been working on as well, adding that they started just a few years before eastern Washington.

Gamache explained that one reason western Washington got a head start on the topic is because of the heavy rainfall that affects most of that side of the state. He noted that the rate of rainfall in eastern Washington requires a different set of rules.

"In eastern Washington, it's a whole different Bible to go by," Gamache said.

He explained that taking a look at storm water drainage is an important issue, regardless of the fact that it's also a federal requirement.

"We can't destroy our streams and waterways," Gamache said. He added that if Yakima County doesn't take on the issue of storm water drainage, later on down the road a private citizen could sue the county for not complying with the Endangered Species Act requirement.

Gamache said since 1999, when the county first started looking at storm water drainage, some work has been done. That includes conducting several presentations to community groups on the effects of storm water run-off and working closely with several cities also affected by the federal regulation, including Yakima, Union Gap, Selah and Sunnyside, to ensure that storm water programs are compatible across the board.

Gamache explained the county is expected to implement an educational process regarding storm water run-off by the end of the year. However, in order to do this, he said Yakima County is going to need to find some financial resources.

According to Gamache, the City of Yakima, which is also affected by the Endangered Species Act regulation, recently decided that in order to pay for the educational aspect of the program it would create a utility fee. Gamache explained that the utility fee created by the City of Yakima is based on how much storm water run-off a typical residence or business creates, which is called a residential equivalency unit. Gamache said that the City of Yakima calculated residential equivalency units that resulted in a utility fee of approximately $1.50 a month for city residents and about 75ยข a month for owners of agricultural areas. He explained that the fee is lower for agricultural areas because there are fewer impervious surfaces on a farm, which means that pollution isn't collecting and then being washed to the ground all at once.

Frank Hendrix, a member of the task force overseeing the storm water run-off program, noted that at this point the task force isn't planning on recommending the implementation of a utility fee to help pay for the program. Instead, he said studies have been done that indicate the largest percentage of pollution being picked up in storm water run-off is made up of hydrocarbons. Hendrix said hydrocarbons are the result of vehicle pollution.

Hendrix said one funding idea the task force has looked into would be the implementation of a vehicle fee. He said the fee would be charged to all licensed vehicle owners in Yakima County, adding that exactly how much the fee would be has yet to be determined.

Hendrix added the final decision as to how funding will be collected for the program will be made by the county commissioners.

Gamache explained that the county has been working closely with the City of Yakima on the storm water drainage issue and at this point is examining the possibility of implementing a similar utility fee for those living in unincorporated Yakima County. Gamache said he can't say for sure whether or not the county will ultimately implement a utility fee, but it is something that is being looked at to fund the education portion of the storm water drainage issue. He said he anticipates a decision involving a utility fee will be made by June.

The educational aspect of the program will work to let people living in areas affected by the Endangered Species Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems Permit Program know what they can do to combat the effects of storm water run-off. He added that education is only one part of the program that could be funded through a utility fee. Gamache said the county will also be working on spurring more public involvement in the process, figuring out how to deal with run-off at places like construction sites, and working on overall pollution prevention.

Gamache explained that in some instances there are different plants that can be placed in areas where run-off occurs, which can basically take care of any pollutants before they are absorbed into the ground.

According to Gamache, the storm water issue is just one part of a program that is looking at everything from flood control zones to drainage improvement districts.

Gamache said the issue of storm water run-off is an important one.

"We need to be better citizens, better protectors of the environment," Gamache said.

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