July 14, 2005

Seventy-four of the 407 community stormwater drainage ponds registered with the county "need major maintenance or repair," but it has not yet been determined how to go about addressing the problem, let alone how to pay for its solution.

Richard Przywara, general manager of the Department of Special Services, told a County Council committee that the department is in the process of setting priorities and working out a budget and timetable. It hopes to have a definitive plan to put before Council and the public by September, he said.

All indications are that the plan will have call for a multi-year project second only in magnitude to upgrading and expanding the county's sanitary sewer system.

At this point, things are in a preliminary stage. Przywara told Delaforum that reference to 74 ponds is based on inspection reports which are performed annually. "I am working on a list of ponds to be targeted for work. I have not yet determined which ponds can be fixed, based on costs," he said.

"I'm worried about some of the things we're going to find" when work commences, he told Council's special services committee on Jul. 12.

A foretaste of possible scenarios came recently when the contractor rebuilding a county-owned pond at Old Hobson Farm discovered that  it was supported by unstable clay. That required Council approval of an additional  $70,000 emergency contract. While that amount is small, relatively speaking, simply multiplying it by the 74 ponds found so far to need work indicates that money potentially needed for 'extras' far exceeds the total available for the basic jobs.

The only way that can be determined, he said, is hands-on. "Let's get into half a dozen or so of these ponds and find out," he said.

As Delaforum previously reported, the General Assembly provided $3.3 million in the state's capital spending budget enacted in late June to be passed through the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to help finance stormwaer management in New Castle County. The money is to be in the form of reimbursement rather than to be made available up front.

"We asked for $10 million," Przywara said, adding that it is hoped that state lawmakers will regard it as a 'first installment' against the county's needs.

As Councilman Jea Street put it, "$3.3 million doesn't get you 74 ponds [and they] are just a piece of a much larger problem."

Przywara said all of the state money will be used during the current fiscal year to pay for work on selected ponds in residential communities. The department also will have available an unspecified amount remaining from the $17 million for stormwater and flooding-related projects previously approved by County Council.

"At least we have some money to fix up ponds that are falling apart," he said.

Longer-term, "we have to look at revenue streams that are constant" rather than relying on tax revenue, Councilman Timothy Sheldon said.

Momentum toward establishing one or more fee-charging surface water management utilities on the state, county and-or municipal levels foundered on political shoals after a statewide taskforce appointed by Governor Ruth Ann Minner made recommendations in that regard. The Assembly limited itself to providing $500,000 for the natural resources department to hire a consultant to further study the idea.

A stormwater utility is financed by fees calculated on the estimated amount of drainage proportionate to the amount of impervious surface a property has. That is comparable to the practice in New Castle County of assessing sewer service fees proportionate to the amount of potable water consumed.

It is agreed that the county's ponds problem is the result of a generation or so of neglect, benign or otherwise, since the 1970s when the practice of requiring them as part of most development projects began. Only recently has that begun to give way to reliance on swales and other natural methods for controlling drainage.

"It looks like we've been taught a multi-million dollar lesson," Councilman David Tackett said.

County government's approach was to require builders to construct the ponds and, after 75% of the development was completed, deed them to maintenance organizations run by volunteers from the community and financed by fees collected from property owners. While that might look well on paper, the reality is that, in many cases, it hasn't worked.

Some builders neglected to transfer ownership; in many communities, no volunteers were willing to assume the responsibility of running the associations; associations that were functioning had to rely largely on voluntary payment of the fees; some associations have  hired management firms, but others did not have anyone who actually knew what they were supposed to do or how to do it. The result, Przywara indicated, is near chaos.

Beyond the 407 which have registered -- again, voluntarily -- county government doesn't know how many associations there are and which ones are defunct. The best that can be said, according to Przywara, is that "after 18 months surveying [the situation], we think we know where most of them (the ponds) are." The county does not have to deal with ponds installed by Delaware Department of Transportation in conjunction with road building.

The plan the department is developing, he said, will include neither enlarging nor redesigning ponds. Abutting property is either designated community open space or is owned by householders, ruling out expansion. Although there may be opportunity for some modifications "we're going to rebuild them to the specifications [with which] they were designed," he said.

He agreed with Street that safety will necessarily be a significant element and promised that that will be built into the plan. The councilman pointed out that few, if any, of the ponds are fenced or otherwise protective, especially of children. "I hope we don't have to wait until a child drowns in one before we do something about it," he said.

2005. All rights reserved.

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