District residents packed D.C. Council chambers Friday to talk about skyrocketing water bills, and the growing fees that have no end in sight.
"I can't stop this rate from increasing, there's nothing I can do. Even if I stop running the water, the bill would just keep going up," D.C. resident Tracey Williams told council members.
The majority of the Clean Rivers program is paid for by DC Water customers.
The fees are currently assessed based on the surface area of their property that can't absorb water.
"I'm just not convinced that this is beyond the capacity of the wise thinkers over at DC Water to come up with a better way," said Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee that held the public hearing.
The Clean Rivers fees have been the subject of a series of News4-I-Team reports, showing how the cost is devastating some customers. They're funding a $2.6 billion dollar tunnel project to stop sewage and stormwater from overflowing into our rivers.
"Accountability and transparency are key to this process. We need a full independent audit of this project," said Sean Kennedy, a visiting fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute.
On Tuesday, DC Water revealed the Clean Rivers fees are projected to double again by 2026. They will continue climbing through 2030 and are slated to remain on DC Water bills indefinitely.
"If you truly want to relieve the pressure, the district government itself owns more impervious surface area than anyone, thousands of miles of roadways sidewalks and alleys," said Alan Roth, former chairman of the DC Water Rates Committee.
But as the I-Team exposed, the District's public roadways are exempt from that fee, even though they create plenty of stormwater runoff.
Council member heard from several residents, non-profits and pastors who said their churches have had to cut community programs to pay for their water bills.
Representatives from five cemeteries said even though their properties are mostly greenspace, the fees are threatening their ability to keep operating. Some bills have grown by thousands of dollars a month, just in Clean Rivers fees.
"We're not asking for an exemption or a free ride," said Jim Jones of Rock Creek Cemetery, "We're perfectly willing to pay our fair share, we just want some equitable treatment for it."
After the first several I-Team reports in October, DC Water said it would re-evaluate the fees for fairness.
The D.C. Council is now considering new legislation to lessen the burden on cemeteries.
Friday, council members also discussed the possibility of lowering the fees for churches and other non-profits with hardships.
But if that happens, the rest of the customers would have to make up the difference, unless the District or federal government agree to fund part of the project.
Removing the exemption for public roadways could generate an extra $35 million each year.
"I keep hearing how tough this is and what a hard question this is," Jones told the council, "Just because good public policy might be tough, is no reason I would think, for not attempting to do something with it."