Churches and Cemeteries Decry Fees for River Cleanup

Jacob Fenston / WAMU

Billions of gallons of raw sewage flow into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers each year. Who should foot the bill to fix the problem? That’s a question the D.C. Council grappled with, as representatives from churches, cemeteries, condo associations and others told lawmakers they were being unfairly burdened by rapidly rising fees to pay for a massive infrastructure project.

If you look at your D.C. Water bill, you’ll see a line for Clean Rivers IAC, or impervious area charge. It’s currently about $25 a month for the average single family home.

For Rock Creek Cemetery, off of North Capitol Street, that fee is much higher.

“$14,604. Is that for one month?” asked Council Member Brandon Todd during a hearing on water rates.

“Yes. It’s an untenable situation for us,” said Jim Jones, the cemetery’s senior warden.

The Clean Rivers fee in question pays for a $2.6 billion tunnel project, that will eventually prevent more than 3 billion gallons of raw sewage a year from overflowing into the city’s rivers. Cemeteries and churches are paying so much because, in theory, their large parking lots and roadways send lots of stormwater into the sewers, helping to make them overflow.

George Hawkins, CEO of D.C. Water, says the cemeteries have a valid complaint about their bills, but updating 100-year-old infrastructure is expensive and everyone has to pay for the project, mandated by the EPA.

“Every category of customer in our city came today and said they were paying too much,” Hawkins said. “But of course, the project we have must be done and should be done, so any time we should change any of those, the others would have to pay more.”

Council Member Todd has introduced a bill that would partially exempt cemeteries from the impervious area charge. Council Member Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, was eager to find a solution.

“I’m not a technocrat, but just on its face it seems to me that a cemetery that has all this green space, and all that water that can be absorbed — to pay the kind fees that are being imposed just strikes me as anomalous,” said Cheh.

Hawkins suggested two ways to address the concerns of cemeteries and churches. One would be for D.C. Water to take into account not simply the amount of impervious area, but the ratio of impervious to pervious. So for example, a cemetery that had 5 acres of impervious roadways on hundred acre site would get a discount, because 95 percent of the total is pervious, preventing runoff. Another potential fix, which Council Member Cheh expressed interest in, would be to create a fund, paid for by the District, to subsidize churches, cemeteries and other institutions struggling to pay the Clean Rivers fee.

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