Homeowners Call System to Fight Skyrocketing Water Bills Unfair; Brookings Report Predicted Customer Strain Years Ago

As the rain pours down in Washington, D.C., the water piles up, running off of parking lots and sidewalks, filling the District's storm drains and sewers.

But northwest D.C. resident Chandra Hardy said it's not coming from her property.

"This part flows down, directly into that green area over there," she said, pointing to a sharply sloped landscape below her property.

The retiree also showed the News4 I-Team how the water from her home's downspouts is redirected into drains that connect to her septic system. Her home does not get a sewer bill, because she doesn't use the sewers.

But her DC Water bill is still $390 a month, and nearly 90 percent of that bill comes from one fee, called the Clean Rivers IAC, or impervious area charge.

It's supposed to charge customers for the stormwater runoff their property creates based on the square footage of their rooftop, driveways and parking areas, which do not absorb water.

"They're charging a fee and they're perfectly right to do that -- if you're overburdening the system," said Hardy.

But she said she isn't. She even has a letter from an engineering review which clearly says her "property is not connected to the DC sewer system or the city storm drains."

But she said DC Water ignored that argument when she took her case to a hearing officer last year. And she lost. Even though the agency's own website says the fee "is based on a property's contribution of rainwater to the District's sewer system."

"The burden of proof was on me," said Hardy. "It is a ridiculous burden on an issue which is quite clear."

Todd Boley had the same thought when the ball was in his court -- a tennis court which makes up a large portion of his backyard, complete with weeds growing up through the porous surface.

"This court requires water on it to be playable," he said, adding that he, too, has an engineering report and letter from the company that manufactures the court.

"It was more permeable than backyard grass," he told the I-Team.

But the same DC Water hearing officer who ruled against Hardy also ruled against Boley.

"The difficulty I've heard people have when they're in the right to get it fixed is pretty hopeless," said Boley. "It's very difficult."

So the News4 I-Team filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the hearing records of appeals from water customers.

Not one customer in the records DC Water provided got their IAC fees lowered after going through the hearing process.

"DC Water says that by definition tennis courts are impermeable, so it doesn't matter that I show that it's permeable, because the hearing examiner can't change the rules," said Boley.

After spending 2 1/2 years, plus thousands of dollars on higher bills, an attorney and engineers, Boley agreed to settle and DC Water lowered his IAC fee.

He was not reimbursed for his years of higher bills.

"Of course it seems silly, but what can you do?" said Boley.

Carol O'Cleireacain said DC Water can do a lot.

She wrote a report on the Clean Rivers IAC program for the Brookings Institution five years ago, predicting DC Water's customers will notice the impact, since the fees increase exponentially every year.

The I-Team asked what kind of traction her report received.

"Not a lot, I was kind of disappointed," replied O'Cleireacain. "Then it was maybe a nerdy issue. Now it's a pocketbook issue."

In her report, she raised "several possible concerns with the present IAC structure," noting that DC Water should "explore whether square footage alone is sufficiently related to runoff levels."

O'Cleireacain told the I-Team, "It was pretty easy to say we've got a problem here. We have to raise some serious questions about whether there's a capacity in the District to pay for this."

"This" is a $2.6 billion tunnel project -- Washington, D.C.'s answer to a federal mandate that it stop overflows of sewage and wastewater.

The city's ancient system uses the same pipes for sewage and storm runoff, which mix together.

That usually isn't a problem, except after heavy rains when that wastewater floods into our streets, homes and rivers.

"The issue is how we're going to pay for this in a fair way," said O'Cleireacain, adding that after years of research, she did not believe the current fee system is fair to DC Water customers, who are bearing the bulk of the cost for the project.

Just last week, after the News4 I-Team exposed some of the impact IAC fees are having, DC Water announced it would examine the fairness of the current rate structure.

Some churches said they'll have to cut community programs to afford water bills in the thousands.

And the District's most historic cemetery said it could have to shut down because 75 percent of its $200,000 water bill is the monthly IAC fee.

"It's a it's a painful reality for what is necessary to improve our system," said DC Water General Manager George Hawkins. "Every discount we give to one customer is money we have to raise from everybody else."

Hawkins said properties that are mainly green space like cemeteries or the National Arboretum might deserve a break.

The arboretum spends about $400,000 a year on IAC fees and is not hooked into the city storm drains.

Just like Chandra Hardy, who now has a case pending against DC Water in the Court of Appeals.

Others will be watching, including the arboretum, and DC Council members.

They are now planning to hold a public hearing on the growing DC Water bills on Nov. 17.

Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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