Storm water Fees and Flooding

floods-2014-1As many of you recover from the latest water event in El Paso, I thought I would bring you up to speed on the infamous storm water fee the city implemented in 2007. City ordinance 016668 established the Storm Water Utility under the auspices of the El Paso Water Utilities. The new utility and associated fees were the result of the 2006 storms that led to unprecedented flooding in the city. Many characterized those storms as the 100-year storm. During the various discussions about establishing the storm water utility, the notion that the city needed to prepare for another 100-year storm was argued by the supporters of the new fees. Many of the individuals opposed to the new fee argued that although there needed to be some maintenance for the storm water infrastructure of the city the proposed fees and moving the service to the Public Service Board was nothing more than another money grab by the city.

As usual, we were all labelled anti-progressives and crazies.

The last few days, the local news media and social networks have been full of flooding images in the city. As a matter of fact, various city government offices recently closed early because of the incoming storms. The inconvenient question I’m going to ask is whether the storm water fees are being prudently used by the city especially in light of the recent flooding across the city.

The storm water ordinance transferred the responsibility of managing storm water issues away from the city into the Public Service Board. Two priorities were created as a result of the 2006 storm. The PSB also adopted the Master Storm Water Management Plan. On March 1, 2008, the El Paso Water Utilities officially took over the management of storm water issues for the city.

I looked at the fiscal reports for the utility to see how much money has been collected and how much has been spent on storm water remediation.

The FY 2010-2011 report lists among its “accomplishments” that out of the 15 dams in the city, 13 were deemed as “acceptable”. The report also lists the “efficient sandbag distribution program and reduced costs” as one of its accomplishments. The report also stated that due to “federal economic stimulus” funds the utility “was able to accelerate the capital improvement program”. This was true for all subsequent reports that I saw.

You might remember that the biggest argument was that the city had neglected for many years the capital improvements needed for an adequate storm water system. In FY 2010-11, according to the utility’s report, it was accelerating some of the capital improvements. For FY 2010-11, the utility operated with a budget of $5.658 million plus an “indirect cost allocation” from support services bringing the total budget to $7 million.

Operating and maintenance took $5.6 million from that budget.

The Cebada/Magnolia system is the city’s largest drainage system according to the report. This system is responsible for handling runoff coming from the Northeast and Central areas and “must work properly in order for I-10 to remain useable during flood events”, according to the FY2010-11 report.

For FY 2011-12, the utility expected to receive $15.068 million from the storm water fees included in your monthly water bill. This figure accounted for about 26% of the monies available for storm water activities. For 2011-12, the utility was looking to spend $44.662 million for capital improvements.

In the FY2011-12 report, the utility listed as an achievement that the NE and NW infrastructure were listed as receiving “excellent evaluations”. This report also stated that the Cebada/Magnolia Phase I clearing was accomplished.

For FY2012-13, the utility estimated that it was going to receive about $15 million from the storm water fees it collects from you each month. This accounted for about 37% of the revenues budget. The utility wrote that it was going to spend $27.782 million in capital improvements for that fiscal cycle.

The FY2012-13 report lists the completion of Cebada/Magnolia clearance phase II as one of the achievements. The report also added that the utility had finalized the purchase of ten properties for storm water projects.

In the FY2013-14 report, the utility wrote that it would collect about $15.261 million from the monthly storm water fees and spend about $31.806 million in capital improvements.

According to these reports, you can see that the city’s storm water utility has estimated spending around $130 million in capital investments to shore up the storm water drainage system. The PSB has also reported collecting about $45.3 million from the storm water fees it levies on you each month.

As you look at these numbers, look around you and ask yourself, has the city properly addressed the storm water issues it set out to as a result of the 2006 storms? Keep in mind that the 2006 storms were supposed to be a 100-year storm event.

What were this week’s storm event, ten year or another 100-year event? The city has spent about $130 million plus overhead on storm water remediation. Do you really believe this has been a good expenditure of your tax dollars?

8 thoughts on “Storm water Fees and Flooding

  1. Martin,

    Do you know anything about how storm water systems are managed or built? I ask because once again you are really stretching the truth by throwing out comments and details that you manipulate to try to make your point.

    A “100 year storm” simply means that in any given year there is a 1:100 chance that a storm of that magnitude might happen. That doesn’t mean that storms of that magnitude can’t happen every single year (or say once or twice every 8 years). In fact, the 2006 STORMS (note the plural) were a series of 100 year storm events during the course of a few days that massively overwhelmed the storm water system. The most recent storms we dealt with may or may not have been 100 year storms, but they were caused by the remnants of a tropical storm as it slowly made it’s way through the region. How often do we get tropical storms around here? I can think of a handful of times and honestly this time wasn’t as bad as previous major storms. It wasn’t great, but if you know what you’re looking for and at, it is really obvious that the PSB is actually working on the stormwater system with the stormwater fee money.

    As far as moving the stormwater system over to the PSB, I’d say that this year’s budget talks (and really EVERY single year’s budget talks) are a great example of why things like that shouldn’t be funded by the general fund or controlled by council. You have the idiots on council like Limon who wanted to get more money to pay her staff or Lilly who whined about wanting to spend $3M of “her” money on landscaping in her district even though there were other issues in other districts that needed more urgent attention. The PSB’s sole purpose is to maintain the water, sewer, and now storm water systems without being influenced by the politicians on council. Why? Well because some folks think that critical systems like WATER should be reliably maintained by people who are experts in those fields, not by politicians who will do stupid things like instituting a franchise fee that doesn’t go to the PSB, but rather goes to the general fund because they are too chicken shit to admit that they over-promised what they can deliver based on the revenues we’re seeing.

    So let’s address your insinuation that the PSB isn’t managing it’s funding properly. Do you know what a pump station is? If you did, you would realize that while they have completed multiple parts of the Cebada/Magnolia sytem, one set of CRITICAL components is the force main and the pump station that will take overflow from very large storm events away from the I-10 area and dump it into the Rio Grande. Hell, the three items left to be constructed in the master plan (http://www.epwu.org/stormwater/master_plan.html) are ALL components of Cebada/Magnolia. Why are they taking so long to build them? Well because it takes time to design these large systems, get funding, and even buy the land necessary to build them. The reason it’s been split up into phases is because they needed to balance a multi-year construction plan with financing constraints. I’m not saying the PSB does everything perfectly, but your insinuations are frankly fairly stupid.

    If you were saying that they were spending funds on inappropriate expenditures, or that they were focusing on other parts of town based on personal criteria, or doing any of a dozen things wrong, then I’d be more sympathetic, but when you conveniently ignore details from the material you’re quoting and then try to spin that material to reach your pre-established conclusion, well honestly I have to wonder why you’re playing the role of the “useful idiot” as you so often call other folks. What gives Martin?

    I know you’re not knowledgeable about this stuff, but couldn’t you ask someone about it? Honestly, if you’re admitting that you opposed the changes to the stormwater utility then you were a crazy and just flat out ignorant about why it was important to do that. Yeah, it sucks that we couldn’t fix 100% of the stormwater system overnight (hell as of 2011-2012 they were still working to run cameras through the existing portions of the system so they could evaluate what condition it was in and WHERE the damn lines were in the first place. Try to get your head around that for a moment, 3 years into their existence, they were still working on documenting the system because the city had done that bad of a job of keeping track of it before they handed it over. That doesn’t mean they were sitting still and not moving forward with projects and portions of projects (as you pointed out) but it should give you a notion of the scope of what they are trying to do.

    Ultimately El Paso is a fairly unique city and our position straddling the Franklin Mountains is responsible for some interesting and at times very challenging design issues when it comes to a lot of public works projects. The extent to which portions of the city are vulnerable to flash flooding is really amazing and it’s nowhere near as bad as it was a hundred years ago (when we frequently had many deaths from the floods that would hit the area almost yearly).

  2. Drak,

    You make the point by saying that 2006 was much worse. Eight (8) years later, storms that weren’t as bad managed to flood many homes and businesses AGAIN!

    Yes, useful idiots can’t see that when the city wants a ballpark, they’ll move heaven and earth (not to mention City Hall) to get it done. Think of the timeline for that! 1) Demolish one city hall 2) demolish one museum 3) clean up the mess 4) purchase property to move city departments all over town 5) remodel those buildings 6) create one new brand new stadium. How long did that take again? You see why some people deserve the label “useful idiot”?

    1. I really don’t understand your point about the difference between 2006 storms and 2014 storms. The PSB hasn’t finished the capital improvement projects that they need to build in order to hopefully fix those flooding issues. Until they do there is a fairly good chance that homes and businesses will be flooded during large storms. You don’t get the full protection of the stormwater system until the various portions of it are completed.

      As far as the evil ballpark, eh, I don’t know anyone who thinks that was a particularly good way to build something. I’m not sure why you wold point to it as a way to get things done. Do you want the city and PSB to start building everything like that? I certainly don’t.

      Keep in mind that they needed to actually buy land from property owners in order to actually build the stormwater components near I-10 and eminent domain stuff takes time (and money) even when they are legitimately buying the land and not just going to court to take it.

      The ballpark (even if we agree we don’t want them building anything else that way again) was lucky in that the city owned the land it was built on and they could lease the office space they couldn’t buy so they were able to move everyone out of city hall in record time.

      Oddly enough you can’t build stormwater ponds and pump stations etc… on land that you don’t own so that took several years to work out. I don’t know that the PSB did a great job in how they decided which projects to build, but they appear to have gotten a lot of pieces built at a consistent pace. I haven’t heard anyone claim that they did anything shady with those projects so it seems like the main gripe is “OMG! We flooded! We weren’t supposed to ever flood again because we are paying our stormwater fee so magical stormwater system should come into existence the instant we pay our fee and protect us from all the flooding instantly!!!” or something silly like that.

      Unfortunately the real world doesn’t work like that so we have to wait and some people keep getting flooded because they live in flood prone areas that the PSB is still working to fix.

    1. So have you ever wondered how it is that the PSB (or anyone else really) manages to spend a lot more money than they have coming in? That’s right, they take out loans! For public entities, part of the process of telling us about finances is that they need to disclose how much of the money they get goes to servicing the debt they took out.

      In the PSB’s case (and as you can see from Martin’s post) they have been spending a LOT of money to actually build the needed stormwater improvements sooner rather than later. Sure, 8 years isn’t exactly fast, but it would take them a LOT longer to build the infrastructure that they need if they were only using the money that comes in from the much hated stormwater fee (or we’d be paying a MUCH higher fee).

      I don’t know how you feel about borrowing money in order to build capital improvements projects, but if you look at the Times today you can see a lot of people who live in those most affected areas are upset that it is likely to take another 2 years before the system arount I-10 is completed. Imagine what folks would say if we told them it would take 20 years instead?

      So… yeah I’m not sure what you were expecting but that’s pretty much what the stormwater utility has been doing for as long as it has existed and that’s what the city and state do, etc… That’s how the powers that be pay for expensive public projects…

  3. Drak, you have no idea really how worthless of an Entity that the storm water has been since it’s creation. In the flood of 06 none of city workers(street department) knew how to turn on the pumps to decrease the level of the holding pond under the Spaghetti Bowl so instead of letting the freeway be washed away they let the gates open and flooded the Saipan area. I know much of this from a friend of mine who has a business in the area. He said his parking lot was empty and when they released the gates to flood Saipan that water came up Durazno and flooded his place again(it had flooded earlier). Later the city found out that they could have turned on the pumps from downtown. I guess the engineers at the street department didn’t know this , but I’m asking why not ? Later, Wilson sees she needs to cut the budget(street department cleanup of the flood was not an option) and forces the Storm water Utiltity down our throats and to council. Council passes it with approval from Archuleta and the PSB board. Later we find out a board member sold equipment to the utility(Teran). Archuleta acted like he was unaware of this and may have been , but did nothing about it(or couldn’t). If memory serves I believe the bidding process had been changed from one form to another so I’m not sure if Teran had a monopoly on the bid or not. No one at the Times was gonna dig that’s for sure. Also I believe the CPA Financial officer retired from EPWU about the same time that this happened too, but I cant confirm that nor do I know if it had anything to do with it. He had been there 30 years. But again, nobody at the Times would check on it. I always believe Wilson wanted the Storm water Utility to fix the streets, but Archuleta knocked that down, but guess who he hired to run the new Utility ? I believe he hired the Engineer from the City street department as the head man. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s correct. Ok, back to last years flood. The City, not the Utility actually paid for the new fields, park, and retaining pond that replaced the demolished homes in the Saipan area. Remember when we had the flood last August when the Utility let the Saipan lake go over rock walls and completely cover the fields ? My friend told me the Utility either wouldn’t or couldn’t get the pumps on or didn’t turn them on while the lake was filling up. He said he saw their new 4 wheel drives parked there as late as 10 at night. Just sitting there, I guess waiting for the pumps to turn on themselves. They should turn on the pumps when it gets to the halfway point of the lake ahead of time, but they never do it(maybe a float ?). This year when the Durazno area had the big rainfall my friend said he and a buddy were cleaning the drainage tunnel that leads to the big tunnel that goes to the river and while they were wading and working a Stormwater official shows up and they asked him when he was going to turn on the pumps. He replied he didn’t have the key to get into the pump house. Later he said he was gonna try and get them to turn it on remotely. He said he knows the pumps at least came on by the next day due to the level, but there was already damage to the Rock walls and other things. Guess who is gonna pay to repair that ? Does anyone realize the Utility goes around and collects a fee and makes businesses fill out a Storm water evacuation plan and they cant even get pumps turned on ?

    Here ya go Drak, http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_26623926/flooding-problems-continue-central-el-paso

    The biggest problem in this area is that EPWU doesnt clean the damn drains for the ponding areas along the gateway at Copia and Piedras. If they would clean them before the rains start and check to see if they are clogged up again once a week during the rainy season then this would be much less of a problem. Im sure they will claim its not their job, but actually TXDOT. But they are Stormwater. TXDot built the freeway, but maintenance of the draining systems should be EPWU for what we are paying them.

    1. So apparently your memory of these things is different than mine. I lived in that area during the floods of 2006 and what you’ve been told by some people isn’t correct or the truth. The bottom line for the stormwater issue is that city reps and others let businesses get away with doing a crappy job of maintaining or even building stormwater components for decades and it was ok because it’s El Paso, it never rains in El Paso.

      Then it did and we all realized how badly maintained and built a lot of our stormwater system was. Mostly because we left it up to businesses and reps who listened to them to decide what they needed to build. Now, you have people who specialize in stormwater working to make sure that developers and businesses are responsible for their stormwater and reps can’t really get involved to cut their buddies slack. Unofortunately it takes time to do that and for some reason no one seems to understand that it can take years to finish building a stormwater system. Especially one that needs to coordinate with TxDOT and other entities.

      The article you pointed to in the times is basically saying that people are upset because the changes to the stormwater system haven’t helped them yet and they are being told it will be another 2 years. Of course given your comments about the times I’m not sure why you even bother linking to their article since you seem to think they are in cahoots with the cabal that is laughing maniacally as they make things flood in an effort to wash away the city… or something. Honestly I don’t care what one or two people think about the flooding. Of course the news would only talk to the people who still get flooded, but I know friends and family who are seeing benefits to the changes in the stormwater system and they can understand that while this stuff is still under construction they are at risk. It sucks but they’re happy to see that things are being built and the folks I know who still live in the area seem to feel that they haven’t been forgotten, the drainage situation was just that bad.

  4. Everything here is defined by incomprtence. City and EPWU engineers are just plain STUPID and you can’t fix stupid.

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