What’s the rundown on stormwater runoff?

Stormwater naturally soaks into the ground to be absorbed by vegetation, replenish aquifers, or slowly find its way into our rivers and lakes.  When this natural process is disrupted by human infrastructure, the stormwater runoff increases the burden on the city’s stormwater management system.  Stormwater runoff is what we call rain and melted snow that falls on, and then runs off of, impervious surfaces such as roofing and pavement. Stormwater not only increases the potential for flooding, but also washes away environmentally harmful substances such as pesticides, industrial toxins and animal waste into our waterways and, for Hamilton, our harbour.  Limiting the amount of stormwater runoff we face is an important part of preserving the health of our local environment and water table, as well as reducing flood risks for local homeowners and businesses.

For many communities and areas in Canada, flooding represents the first tangible challenge presented by global warming, and Hamilton is no exception. Hamilton is experiencing more frequent and intense rainfall, with an average 3% increase in rainfall per year since the 1970’s. Due to the high density of impermeable surfaces such as roofs and roads in the city, most of this water is drained into the stormwater system. Our aging infrastructure is unable to keep up with our rapidly changing climate, leading to a multitude of impacts on both the city and Hamiltonians. The excess stress on the stormwater system has lead to stormwater management fees doubling in less than ten years, and during more severe events, unprocessed sewage is drained into the Harbour. These events can also present in the form of ice storms during the winter months, which lead to unsafe road conditions, cancellations, and large-scale power outages.  This is why Environment Hamilton is joining city staff in calling for a new stormwater management funding system that addresses this problem head on, as well as creating new opportunities for our city to increase resiliency in the face of climate change.

Why does Hamilton need a new fee system for stormwater management?

Hamilton’s stormwater management system is currently paid primarily through water bill rates. As stormwater costs rise, conservation efforts have reduced the amount of money available to this purpose.  Large impervious areas like commercial parking lots contribute the most to stormwater runoff, without contributing to the costs of dealing with it, while nearby households that face greater flooding risks are left to foot the bill.  

Based on successes in other Ontario municipalities including Kitchener, Ottawa, London and Mississauga, Hamilton city staff have proposed looking at a new funding system to create a reliable, direct, and transparent funding mechanism for stormwater management.  This would increase transparency, so that citizens can see where our money is going, create more stability, so that the city can plan for the future, and create a mechanism to encourage property owners to make improvements like rain gardens to reduce our stormwater burden.  

The City of Mississauga currently charges businesses and residences based on the impermeable surface area on their property through their hydro bill. They also offer a credit program, reducing fees by up to 50% for multiresidence or non residential properties that reduce runoff or implement pollution reduction plans. Ideally, we would like to see more of an incentive based program, where any property can make small changes such as adding rain barrels, rain gardens, or reducing the amount of impermeable surfaces to reduce fees. Environment Hamilton is calling on Hamilton City Council to direct staff to investigate implementing a new fair fee for our stormwater management system that takes into account the current and future needs of our city. In building a more resilient city, incentives should be provided for property owners to decrease their contribution to the strain on the system - and property owners that contribute the most should pay the most. Overall, we want a fair system where the amount of stormwater running into our systems is reduced, and fees are equitably distributed based on contributions.

What you can do

We have already gathered hundreds of signatures on our letter to City Council asking for them to implement a fair fee structure for stormwater. You can sign the electronic version here! In the meantime, there are several small actions you can take to reduce the amount of stormwater from your property. Examples include replacing asphalt or concrete driveways with more permeable paving stones, gravel, or bricks, collecting water from your roof in rain barrels or rain gardens, and adding more native plants to your lawn to increase water absorption.