Invest now for safe, clean waterways

Lexington Herald-Leader
Guest editorial
Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2009

by Van Meter Pettit

While most Lexingtonians are trying to make ends meet, our government has been sorting out a lawsuit filed against us by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lexington is being sued because many of the creeks in Fayette County are regularly overloaded by pollution in violation of the Clean Water Act.

This comes from underdeveloped or ill-maintained sewer and storm water infrastructure. Urban flash-flooding caused by too much paving and too little water retention has made a bad situation far worse.

Lest some scoff that this is just government meddling, you might want to talk to the families with sewage rising in their basements, the horse farmer who spent $40,000 in one year hauling off garbage, or family and friends of the grown women who drowned in a culvert while trying to cross a city street.

We have neglected a vital, but little seen, public investment for a very long time. The fees and the work to be done are not a punishment; they are about deferred investment. If we do this right, we will have cleaner water flowing into the Kentucky River upstream from where we will soon draw our tap water.

Our dilemma is that since we are in a financial crisis, we are proposing a storm-water fee as frugally and expediently as possible, before all the facts are gathered and without adequate public input. By shooting for minimum cost at the front end we may blow a big opportunity that won’t resurface for decades.

The proposed storm-water ordinance addresses the management of rainwater. It directly impacts our urban waterways (the point of the lawsuit). Water quality has everything to do with how we use our urban environment. It is a complex issue that requires substantial citizen input.

The Storm Water Task Force was open to the public, but its proceedings were a closed loop of prearranged conditions. For example, the proposed ordinance set the fee at an arbitrary monthly rate of $4.16 and then made the staff and task force members back into what could be accomplished with this fixed funding (with considerable friction it has just jumped to $4.32 monthly or $51.84 annually).
Despite the last-minute rate adjustment, basic issues that affect water quality are only marginally included and, given the funding, may not be affordable.

For example, even though the EPA sued Lexington over water quality in our creeks, there will be little or no money available for stream restoration or landscape buffering along our floodplains.
Here’s where we are missing a big opportunity.

Lexington is one of few cities nationally where the rural landscape is our urban identity. A strong relationship with the environment is not just a nice thing to have, it is a necessity if you want people to believe you are who you say you are. And it is critical if we want to compete with Austin, Boulder, Madison, Portland or the like in attracting a talented work force.

Lexington is also one of very few cities of any size that does not sit on or near a big body of water. Since our creeks are the epicenter of the lawsuit, it seems pretty well justified to invest in our waterways directly, making them safe, clean and publicly accessible.

Landscape buffers along creeks are critical to improving water quality by slowing runoff and filtering out pollution.

Modern storm water standards call for a 30 foot vegetative buffer on each side of a creek. If we refocus our priorities so that 25 percent of the storm water funds are used to restore our creek corridors, we could directly address the water quality problem and give Lexington the scenic waterways it lacks and the recreational trails that are consistently identified as a top priority.

“One quarter for creeks” is a slogan meant to refocus Lexington on the crux of the lawsuit. This mayor and council have been exemplary supporters of trails. If we can connect the dots and restore our creeks with 25 cents on the dollar of storm-water funding, we can reclaim our urban creek corridors.

If we will see this lawsuit as an opportunity and not just a crisis, we can create a positive lasting legacy that all Lexingtonians can enjoy.

Van Meter Pettit is a licensed architect and president of Town Branch Trail, Inc.