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When it comes to being a progressively minded flood protected community perhaps nothing is more important than instituting a stormwater fee that is based on impervious surfaces.

At the basic fundamental level, stormwater fees set the tone for the town. That the residents of the town are going to take impervious surfaces seriously. I personally like to refer to impervious surfaces as “flood out your neighbor” surfaces. That’s really what they are doing. Impervious surfaces is sugar coating it in my mind. Impervious surfaces dramatically alter the balance of the water cycle sending more flow faster to residents down hill.

This past month I wrote a public OpEd/Essay for Public Source on why stormwater fees are the most fair and logical approach to actually putting a fair price on flooding. Please go and read it if you haven’t already. You can also get a feel for what I look like when I am dead serious about a subject. People who know me, know that I never look that angry, except when it comes to flooding. Boy, who knew I could look like a way less cooler and nerdier water version of Clint Eastwood mixed with Johnny Cash. I think it was the 7AM shadows and lighting as well that helped with the effect.

(Photo credit: Public Source and the super amazing photographer Lindsay Dill)

Anyway, I was limited to 1500 words in the op-ed so I wanted to write some more about stormwater fees here on the blog. I really could go on for days about this subject if I wanted, which is why I likely had Public Source editors going insane with my first draft. Side note: If I loose my marbles and I ever become a Senator some day, my filibuster speeches will be my internal ravings on stormwater fees and incentives.

As I stated in the essay, stormwater fees are needed so that society fairly charges individuals based on the amount of impervious flood out your neighbor surfaces that you or I own. There’s a concept in Economics 101 called “unpriced negative externalities”. You’re probably asking yourself what the heck is this gobbledygook economic speak language “unpriced negative externality” and are we really getting into Economics on an already supremely nerdy enough flooding engineering blog? Yes. Yes we are snarky reader. So pay attention.


An economic negative externality is an externally placed negative human behavior that results in a detrimental cost to society. To help explain the concept, let’s look at an economic negative externality in an example.

Since this blog is named after Pittsburgh and our great city was once called “hell with its lid taken off”, let’s consider air pollution from a steel mill in our example.

Steel mills notoriously pump many different kinds of pollutants into the air. While the mill has to pay for operating costs such as electricity, materials, wages, etc., the residents living around the factory will pay for the brunt of the negative impacts of the pollution. For example, the residents around the mill are likely to have higher medical expenses due to asthma, generally poorer quality of life due to increased smog and noise from the mill, reduced aesthetic appeal of their town resulting in lower home values and taxable income, and general degraded infrastructure such as poorly maintained roads due to lower taxable income. The production of steel and its resulting air and noise pollution are a “negative externality” to the people surrounding the factory.

The steel mill doesn’t have to pay for the effects of the pollution but someone has to (i.e. the residents living in the nearby towns). However, air pollution from steel mills are regulated under the Clean Air Act so they are not a completely true “unpriced” negative externality. There are financial penalties to the steel company if the air pollution and the costs born to the residents are too great (eh-hem 👀 U.S. Steel 👀) . Whether air pollution violations are priced correctly is another matter for debate, but air pollution from mills do have a price when they exceed EPA Clean Air Act emissions standards.

This same example can also be applied to stormwater fees and impervious flood out your neighbor surfaces. The more impervious surfaces you or I own, the more negative costs there are to society. More impervious surfaces means more pollution from washoff, more flooding, more cleanup, more days missed from work, more overtime pay for emergency responders, more infrastructure and on-going repairs needed to manage the extra runoff. All of this costs money to society and are an economic negative externality placed on all citizens.

However, one of the main differences with air pollution generated from a steel mill and stormwater generated from impervious flood out your neighbor surfaces, is that impervious surfaces are an “unpriced” negative externality. In most municipalities in Allegheny County, including the City of Pittsburgh, there are no financial ramifications for an individual to have acres upon acres of roofs, paved parking lots, and driveways even though these surfaces have a major negative economic cost to society.

Stormwater fees based on impervious surfaces are about removing the “unpriced” from the term “unpriced negative externalities” and making sure that land owners with MORE impervious flood out your neighbor surfaces pay proportionally for addressing the negative cost to the rest of society. This is about fairness. This is about equity. You might not like the idea of stormwater fees, but without question they are the most fair and equitable means of addressing our stormwater and flooding issues.

While we are on the subject of economics let’s toss in some Psychology 101 while we are at it.

It is said by leading psychologists, including the esteemed Dr. Peter Venkman, that people are only motivated to change based on intrinsic and extrinsic incentives. In other words, the old tried and true saying “What’s in it for me?”.

Intrinsic incentives are internally placed in your own head; I do sit ups even though I don’t want to because I really want those six pack abs (spoiler: I will never get them no matter how I may try).

Extrinsic incentives are externally placed by society; I move my car every other Monday morning for street cleaning even though I don’t want to, but I also don’t want that 30$ parking ticket. Ok I’ll move it, I have an incentive. Hey, the street cleaner guy never even showed up! I might just call the City about this – eh that sounds like a lotta work. I’ll just complain on Facebook instead. I mean I just moved my car and walked almost 100 steps for nothing. But at least I didn’t get that 30$ parking ticket. Dang extrinsic incentives tricked me into walking 100 steps and wasting 15 minutes of my life for nothing!

Any stormwater fee that is worth its salt will have an extrinsic incentive tied to it to allow the property owner to reduce their stormwater fee by either:

A.) Removing/bulldozing some or all of its impervious flood out your neighbor surface area (Hey, do we really need THIS much parking? 1000 parking stalls for a new Best Buy? Does anyone even shop at Best Buys? I don’t even think we have a 1000 electronic items in the store anymore. Actually, as of today this building isn’t even a Best Buy. It’s now a comic book store.)


B.) Installing rain water management green infrastructure features that reduce their stormwater contributions (see this post here).

Whelp, that’s all I got for today on stormwater fees. I won’t filibuster you anymore today on this blog about them.
I put my contact info at the bottom of the Public Source OpEd because I encourage people to reach out to me on this subject.

I know people are likely to get upset about a “new” fee on their bill. But I welcome the discussion even if it means a few ultra far right wing anti-government psychopaths sending me death threat emails.

Happy to talk to anyone about this subject.

But be forewarned, once I get started I may filibuster your evening.

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1 Comment

  1. I, and many of us in Marshall Twp appreciate what you are doing since we can see ahead trying to maintain intelligent development in our vulnerable Big Sewickley Creek Watershed area. I’d like more info to help us get a better picture of the dangers the Big Sewickley Creek can pose now and in the near future as we continue to clear woods and add impervious surfaces.


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