What Can We Buy With Our Stormwater Fee?

Not clean drains, that's for sure.

I was all for the implementation of the new Stormwater (and Flood Control) Utility two years ago. I still am: it funds repairs to an infrastructure in dire need, one that we cannot live without in an urban environment, and despite the heated tone of the debate regarding the creation of the new utility and associated fee, to this day I have yet to hear a better idea.

But of course, the question always was, what would it buy?

Not, it turns out, attention to detail. Most of Northampton's streets are lined with drains, access points which are designed to collect the runoff when it rains and channel it underground, where it flows along under the street in a succession of larger and larger pipes, down under the meadows to an outflow into the Connecticut River. This silent, invisible trajectory is one of the innumerable miracles of modern life that we take for granted (and storm public hearings around the country demanding to be excused from paying for).

So then, as a taxpayer, presumably you're waiting for the catch. Here it is: DRAINS GET CLOGGED - a lot.

A combination of sand, leaves, and trash can clog almost any drain, even on a steep hill, at almost any time of year. Once clogged, it ceases to function until humanity notices and opts to fix it.

In Northampton, that responsibility falls to the Department of Public Works Streets Division. Most of the time, however, it simply falls by the wayside: the Streets Division has no monitoring system of any kind that keeps track of whether or not these assets are usable; in fact, the reason most drains are marked with little yellow dashes (visible in the photos in this article) is because they are often so submerged in debris that they cease to be visible to the naked eye.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for the DPW stated that all drains are cleaned each time streets are swept. "All city streets are swept at least once a year," said Donna LaScaleia. "Downtown and Florence Center are swept twice a month."

But many drains, like the one featured in this article, lie beneath legal, on-street parking spots that are often taken. During a street sweep, the DPW will go around parked vehicles, leaving any drains beneath them clogged, potentially for years.

Donna also stated that the DPW responds to most clogged drain complaints within two days. However, there have only been 8 complaints logged in the past 15 months, meaning that I cleaned more drains in one city block the week of the video than did the city of Northampton in the preceding 12 months.

Drain Clearing 75 West Street March 28, 2016

For now, at least, this sort of maintenance will be left to citizens like me.

Salutations from your local public works vigilante.