Massachusetts cities and towns, including Foxboro, may be hard pressed to keep their heads above water amidst a rising regulatory tide of stormwater management dictates.
According to Kerry Snyder, advocacy director for the Neponset River Watershed Association, state and federal environmental agencies have stepped up regulations for stormwater discharge — runoff from roadways, large parking lots and other impervious surfaces which flows into street drains and is typically piped to lakes, streams, drainage ditches or other low-lying areas.
Appearing before selectmen last week, Snyder predicted the so-called MS4 standards which took effect Jan. 6 will have a significant impact on town budgets — in Foxboro’s case an estimated $500,000 annually.
These standards have been in the works since 2003, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued its first directive regarding stormwater discharges in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This was followed in 2016 by a final version which, following legal challenges, was adopted last December.
Among other things, the new MS4 permit imposes stricter maintenance standards for stormwater systems, requires communities to ferret out and correct improper discharges and minimize runoff both during and after construction projects, and educate the public about the dangers of such things as pet waste and use of fertilizers.
“This is important because what goes into that stormwater is very consequential,” Snyder said. “All of that really affects the quality of surface waters around town.”
But water protection doesn’t come cheap. In addition to the projected half-million dollar price tag, Snyder said that each new five-year permit cycle imposes stiffer standards and additional costs on cities and towns.
“That’s really only going to increase, and that’s significant in terms of the town budget,” Snyder observed.
In response, she said, a growing number of communities have established dedicated enterprise accounts specifically to fund future stormwater costs.
“I do know several other towns in this area are considering it because these costs are really getting overwhelming,” Snyder said.
Foxboro currently utilizes this type of user-fee approach to self-fund both the water and sewer and recreation departments.
One big difference, however, is that tax-exempt properties — presumably churches and private schools with large on-site parking areas — also would be subject to stormwater fees.
Both public works Director Chris Gallagher and Town Manager William Keegan said a variety of factors could be considered in calculating future stormwater rates, but declined to offer specifics, calling it premature at this point.
“The issue for us here is we’re simply looking for solutions right now,” Keegan said, adding that establishing a stormwater revolving fund makes sense given Foxboro’s historic aversion to Proposition 2 1/2 overrides.
Creating such a fund would require the approval of voters at a future town meeting.
Questioned by Selectman Edward O’Leary, Gallagher said that Foxboro has 2,200 catch basins, with the costs of periodic cleaning funded through the town’s public works budget. But he conceded that he does not know the extent of the town’s street drainage systems.
“I know that we have 110 miles of water main and 33 miles of sewer main, but I don’t know how many miles of drainage pipe we have,” Gallagher said. “This utility is kind of the forgotten one.”
And while some of the town’s drainage infrastructure is relatively new, Keegan noted that in older neighborhoods it could be nearly a century old.
“They’ve told us what we have to do to properly maintain it,” Gallagher said. “But there’s no money coming from them to do that.”
Also participating in the Feb. 2 virtual presentation was Michael Jaillet, a Foxboro resident and longtime town manager in Westwood who currently serves on the watershed association’s board of directors.
Unlike municipal water and sewer systems, Jaillet said that stormwater drainage systems are maintained haphazardly. Because of this, problems usually appear only during major weather events and can result in significant property damage in addition to the environmental impacts.
This scenario played out in Norwood last summer when nearly six inches of rain fell on June 28, overwhelming street drains and flooding the town center. Among the casualties was Norwood Hospital, which remains closed more than seven months later.
Spearheading a local response to the MS4 standards, town engineer Lance DelPriore said local officials are exploring what a future stormwater fee structure might look like and pledged to report back to selectmen with more detailed recommendations.