Toronto councillors look to resurrect stormwater charge proposal after years of flooding and delays

CBC News

Jul 06, 2021

4 years and many floods later, city staff looking at more public consultations on fee

After significant floods have swept through parts of Toronto three years in a row, washing out roadways, subway lines and basements, the idea of a stormwater charge is back on the table.

The city staff proposal to make property owners pay for water runoff and the required infrastructure upgrades to deal with it was shut down by Mayor John Tory in 2017, when his executive committee sent it back to staff for more work.

Georgio Mammoliti, who was on council at the time, had incorrectly branded the charge as a "roof tax" that spurred opposition and Tory compared implementing the plan to trying to "unscramble an egg."

Four years and many floods later, the Infrastructure and Environment Committee is now considering a proposal by staff to do more rounds of public consultation for a stormwater charge. It would cover commercial, industrial and residential properties.

Coun. Mike Layton, a long-time supporter of the fee, told the committee Monday that it's a fairer system that's necessary for Toronto to adapt to climate change.

"Right now there's no incentive to reduce stormwater that's generated," Layton said.

"Just keep paving over like the same way you've always done. Don't worry it will go into the pipes despite extreme weather events that will generate more rainfall. Let's pretend nothing's wrong," he said, sarcastically.

During heavy rainfalls, parking lots, driveways and roofs send streams of water into the sewer system, sometimes causing it to overflow and flood, says the staff report.

In the summer of 2018, up to 100 millimetres of rain fell in a few hours. Water poured into underpasses and parking garages, covering cars. Police rescued two men trapped in a water-filled elevator.

Intense rainfall and flooding the following two summers resulted in closed roads and sewage-filled basements.

Current system unfair, councillors says

A portion of the city's current pay-as-you-go water system covers costs associated with managing stormwater, including protecting against basement flooding and upgrading pipes and treatment plants, says staff's latest report to the infrastructure committee.

It's based on how much water each property owner uses, rather than how much runoff they generate, which can lead to an unfair system, said Layton.

Right now, for example, parking lot owners with no water tap don't pay a water bill, or stormwater fees, despite sending a relatively huge amount of water into the city's sewer system each rainfall, he said. Meanwhile, manufacturers who use a lot of water but don't generate a lot of runoff pay very high fees.

By carving out a separate stormwater charge in property owners' water bills, the city could base the amount they pay on the hard surface area, rather than water usage, according to the report.

It would also encourage property owners to reduce their runoff (and bill) by planting trees and vegetation in parking lots to absorb water, or by harvesting rainwater from rooftops, the staff report says.

Staff estimate that a separate, more accurate fee for stormwater could actually reduce costs for 30 per cent of commercial and industrial properties, if they consume large volumes of water but don't generate a lot of runoff.

Forty-five per cent of businesses would see a six to 10 per cent increase in their utility bill and 25 per cent, like large shopping malls, would see a 50 per cent or greater increase.

Toronto Water Manager Lou DiGironimo told councillors malls have already raised their concerns about increased fees as they attempt to recover from the COVID-19 lockdowns. The fees could be gradually implemented to ensure property owners can manage them, he said.

Both industry and environmental groups support a separate stormwater charge.

"The work's been done. It's important that doesn't die. It's in the public interest to break out a stormwater rate," Al Brezina, executive director of the South Etobicoke Industrial Employers' Association, told the committee.

He said industries are currently overcharged for stormwater. 

"Let's get a strategy in place," said Paul Scrivener, a directer at the Toronto Industry Network. "It's not a popular thing, but many municipalities have done this. It's the right thing to do." 

Both Mississauga and Brampton have separate stormwater fees to pay for infrastructure upgrades. 

Diana Yoon from the Toronto Environmental Alliance urged the city to take "significant steps" toward the stormwater charge. The fact that Toronto still doesn't have one is "inconsistent with best practices" and "irresponsible to our climate future," she said.

City staff will report back before council meets on July 14 on the feasibility of a public information campaign about a separate stormwater fee for residential, commercial and industrial properties, as well as a timeline for public consultations. 

This article was reposted from CBC News: This article first appeared in the CBC News, on Tuesday, Jul 06, 2021.