Chattanooga residents can save up to 75 percent on their annual water quality fee as part of the RainSmart Yards certification program, an initiative designed to prevent rain from running off residents’ property and into the city’s overburdened stormwater system.
The annual certification is being supercharged as part of a new competition between Chattanooga and Knoxville to get the largest number of certifications — the NoogaKnox Challenge — which arose from a partnership between the University of Tennessee’s Smart Yards and Chattanooga nonprofit WaterWays.
“Chattanooga’s outdoor resources are our greatest competitive advantage, and by incentivizing homeowners to help prevent stormwater runoff we are safeguarding our city’s streams and rivers for future generations to enjoy,” said Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, who himself has begun the certification process for his yard.
The WaterWays certification process is also open to residents of Hamilton County and all other counties throughout the region, including in Georgia, though non-Chattanooga residents are not eligible for a discount on their water quality fee.
Chattanooga residents of single-family homes currently pay a standard rate of $167 per year for their water quality fee, a figure that could fall to $41 per year if they are certified as retaining sufficient stormwater on their property by adding rain barrels, avoiding impervious surfaces, and growing native plants and grasses. Chattanooga residents may also seek reimbursement from the City for the installation of rain gardens and rain barrels as part of the City’s RainSmart program.
Qualifying yards are awarded either a bronze, silver or gold rating by WaterWays, based on the property’s condition, and then a discount is awarded by the city of either 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent, respectively.
Why? The City of Chattanooga has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and will spend hundreds of millions more to retrofit its outdated stormwater and sewer systems as part of a 20-year consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
A consent decree is simply an agreement between the federal government and local government meant to correct a violation of federal law to avoid costly litigation. In this case, Chattanooga’s old and inadequate sewer system, which in places combined both sewage and the city’s often torrential rainfall into one combined system, was repeatedly overflowing into the Tennessee River, violating the federal Clean Water Act by contaminating the Tennessee River and the surrounding streams.
The needed repairs to our local sewer system were massive in scope and cost, many times the size of the City’s entire annual budget, so an agreement was reached between local and federal governments to spread the project over the course of twenty years. Chattanooga is roughly halfway through the project as of today.
However, if large numbers of homeowners participate in the RainSmart certification process, they can individually save money each year while also offsetting the need for expensive taxpayer-funded stormwater retention tanks. For example, 10,000 Chattanooga yards with rain gardens installed would prevent 13 million gallons, or 20 olympic-sized swimming pools of rainfall from flowing into the city’s stormwater system during a typical 1-inch rain.
The goal is to incentivize property owners to cultivate yards that capture and retain stormwater when it rains, as well as create habitat for native plants and pollinators. Rain gardens, rain barrels, and natural buffers help keep polluted water and sediment out of creeks and streams, reduce the chances of flooding, and help Chattanooga protect its outdoor resources for recreational use.
Excessive water flows off of impervious surfaces destroy Chattanooga’s rivers and streams through erosion which causes property loss, habitat destruction and polluting sediment deposits, which endangers the city’s greatest competitive advantage — its outdoor resources. The loss in recreational value could directly impact Chattanooga’s quality of life and ability to attract visitors.
Water quality fees are used to fund the city’s efforts to reduce and prevent pollution, provide guidance for construction activities and industrial activities, and control flooding through the construction and maintenance of stormwater infrastructure like roadways, curbs, inlets, pipes, ditches, water quality units and detention facilities.
Homeowners interested in participating in the RainSmart Yards program can fill out a survey to start the process. A staff member from WaterWays then visits the home to ensure the yard and home meet the qualifying criteria and then presents the qualifying homeowner a RainSmart Yard sign.
Water quality fee reductions are also open to commercial, industrial or any other non-residential enterprises.
- Every 1,000 square feet of thin turf converted to native meadow can prevent 75 gallons of runoff from a typical soaking rain.
- For every 100 square feet of impervious surface, about 60 gallons of runoff is produced.
- A typical residential property will shed about 1,300 gallons of runoff in a 1-inch rain. A rain garden could capture over 40,000 gallons of runoff in any given year.
- If 10,000 Chattanooga yards contained rain gardens, 13 million gallons, or 20 olympic swimming pools, could be prevented from flowing into the city’s stormwater system during a typical 1-inch rain.
- For every yard where lawn fertilizers aren’t used, about three pounds of nitrogen are prevented from being released into the environment, or about 100 pounds for a small neighborhood of 30 homes.