Councilwoman Calls Easing DC Water Fees a Top Priority, Sends Suggestions to Lower Bills

Mary Cheh's letter to DC Water outlines nine strategies

There's a promising new development in a News4 I-Team investigation of Washington, D.C.'s growing water bills.

After the I-Team exposed a skyrocketing fee -- and groups that couldn't pay -- a D.C. councilwoman is now suggesting ways DC Water can fix the problem.

"It is a top priority for me in the coming months to work with DC Water, the mayor and my fellow councilmembers to address the very high water bills that some customers are paying," wrote Councilwoman Mary Cheh in a six-page letter sent to DC Water Tuesday.

Her letter outlines nine strategies, addressing concerns first exposed by the I-Team during a series of investigations last fall. Cheh said she's particularly concerned with providing relief for some charitable organizations and residents on fixed incomes.

The I-Team revealed how churches, cemeteries and homeowners' associations are suffering -- forced to pay thousands of dollars each month just for the Clean Rivers fee.

That fee is funding a massive project to build underground tunnels; it's almost entirely paid for by the District's water customers.

Clean Rivers fees have nothing to do with how much water customers use. They're instead based on the amount of impervious area on each customer's property. Private roads, driveways, walkways, patios and surface area of rooftops all drive that calculation higher.

Cheh called the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CR-IAC) the "main driver" of increasing water bills, and asked DC Water to "prioritize this matter and work with [Cheh] to identify and implement the best strategy as quickly as possible."

Cheh proposed a hardship exemption or discount for nonprofits and residents on fixed incomes, which could alleviate the skyrocketing bills for churches, some of whom told the I-Team they've had to cut programs to afford their water bills.

A green space offset would help alleviate the bills for larger properties like cemeteries, some of which pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, comprised largely of the Clean Rivers fees. Rock Creek Cemetery, the District's oldest and most historic cemetery, told the I-Team it could be forced to shut down if the fees aren't lowered.

Cheh also suggested private roads which are open to the public could be exempted from the Clean Rivers fee structure. Several homeowners' associations told the I-Team they were being unfairly charged for roads and sidewalks within their neighborhoods, simply because those streets are designated as “private.”

Cheh said the District should consider whether the local government can afford to give up the controversial exemption it's been getting for public roads, sidewalks and alleys and instead pay those tens of millions of dollars a year to offset the reductions for those in need.

Cheh's letter also proposed that DC Water put renewed pressure on the federal government to increase funding for the program, since the federal government initially built the faulty sewer system that needs replacing through the Clean Rivers project.

She said DC Water should also strengthen its financial incentives for customers who reduce their impervious surfaces with porous ones and that the water agency should consider a two-tiered rate system for multi-family residences.

The letter refers to Cheh's ideas as “suggestions,” many of which would help the affected groups tremendously if DC Water decides to enact the changes.

DC Water has previously told the I-Team at least one of Cheh's ideas would not be feasible; she suggested actually measuring each customer’s stormwater runoff and charging accordingly instead of basing the fee calculation on a property's impervious area, which is an estimate of how much stormwater runoff it could produce.

DC Water told the I-Team it welcomes the input Cheh provided and will consider how to amend the program's rate structure going forward.

"I want to thank Councilmember Cheh and other members of the DC Council for their commitment to work with DC Water and the District Government on this important issue. We welcome their suggestions to provide customers relief from the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge," said Interim CEO/General Manager Henderson Brown. "We are already evaluating the feasibility of some of the proposed strategies and remain open to new ideas.”

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