- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2018


Nearly a decade after D.C.’s water authority levied a “Clean Rivers” surcharge to help clean up local waterways, faith community leaders say that ever-rising rates have forced them to cut back on services, lay off staff and — in at least 30 cases — move out or shut down completely.

Churches and other houses of worship, they say, have special operating requirements that add to the surcharge on their water bills.

The Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge is based on the “impervious area” square footage of a property. The measure includes parking lots, sidewalks and any land that rainwater cannot permeate. Religious properties tend to own more impervious land than typical ratepayers, and even their cemeteries count against them when the tax is calculated.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair,” said Craig Muckle, manager of public policy for the Archdiocese of Washington. “I look at it as insanity, frankly.”

Mr. Muckle leads a coalition of churches, synagogues and cemeteries called DC RIVER (Religious Institutions Valuing Environmental Responsibility), which is lobbying DC Water and the D.C. Council to reduce the Clean Rivers burden.

DC Water, the water and sewer authority, imposed the fee in 2009 after the utility and the District signed off on a 2005 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had accused the utility agency of violating river pollutant rules, which DC Water blamed on a Civil War-era combined sewage system. Both parties agreed that DC Water would construct a $2.7 billion underground tunnel system to control the overflow.

DC Water in March completed the tunnel system’s first leg. A month later, during the first major rainstorm, “the new tunnel prevented approximately 170 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water from being discharged to the Anacostia River,” said a DC Water statement. But in May, the religious leaders told a D.C. Council committee hearing to announce that their plight had worsened.

The Rev. Patti Fears of Fellowship Baptist Church said rising charges forced her church to eliminate twice-monthly food pantry ministries at the Capital Area Food Bank.

“People are being driven out of the District,” Ms. Fears told the committee. “Water is essential to life, and it should not be turned into a weapon of destruction.”

Mr. Muckle and the Rev. George C. Gilbert of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church provided lists of D.C. churches that they said have closed down since the fees skyrocketed. The lists show that 30 churches have either fled the District or shut their doors forever, though some faith leaders claim even more houses of worship have been casualties. The venerable St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church, founded more than three centuries ago, is barely hanging on.

“They’ve cut back on quite a number of staff,” said Mr. Muckle. “We have Catholic Charities. These are services that are helping people who are homeless, helping the immigrant community, helping educate kids at their schools.”

Mr. Muckle said one coalition member pays $200,000 a year in Clean Rivers fees annually — nearly equal to what the Washington Nationals baseball stadium pays.

“When you have a nonprofit church paying in the same vicinity of a fee that a multibillion-dollar sports franchise pays, that can’t strike a reasonable person as equitable,” Mr. Muckle said.

Relief in Maryland

DC Water says the CRIAC fee is a “fair way” to distribute costs, and argues the project is on time and nearly on budget.

“It’s going well and we’re on schedule,” said Pamela Mooring, external communications manager for the Authority. “We’re looking forward to all of the benefits the Anacostia Tunnel is going to bring to the river … and everyone who uses it.”

DC Water was set to unveil the enormous drilling machine that will bore the final leg of the tunnel in a “naming and blessing” event Thursday. The final leg is “the last puzzle piece” to reduce overflows, Ms. Mooring says.

“Once the entire tunnel is put into place, we should see a 98 percent reduction in [overflows] in an average rainfall year,” she said. 98 percent exceeds expectations, especially during a heavily rainy period.

“We empathize with customers and that’s why we have multiple programs to assist customers who are struggling with their bills,” Vincent Morris, a DC Water spokesman, said in regards to the CRIAC charges.

“We also share a lot of advice on ways in which customers can lower their bills. Ultimately this project will lead to cleaner waterways and will benefit everyone who lives in or visits the city,” he said.

But the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the water agency for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, said it does not share DC Water’s troubles and that its customers do not pay the “impervious area” surcharge.

“Unlike DC Water, WSSC does NOT have a combined sewer system. WSSC’s wastewater system is designed only for sewer, not storm water,” WSSC said in an email.

The Clean Rivers charge first appeared on customers’ water bills on May 1, 2009, at $1.24 per equivalent residential unit, or square footage. By this year, the rate had skyrocketed to $25.18. Churches and synagogues routinely pay up to $15,000 a month.

“The upkeep and maintenance of our congregation’s historic cemetery in Southeast and the temple’s property in Northwest have been made more challenging because of these striking [rate] increases,” said Steve Jacober, executive director of the Washington Hebrew Congregation.

Mr. Muckle said the city should pay its share of impervious area duty. The city largely exempts itself from the Clean Rivers charge and does not pay for any sidewalks or roads.

“If the city paid that alone, [everyone’s] rate could go down as much as 50 percent,” Mr. Muckle said.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Council looks to provide some relief.

“Council member Todd has heard loud and clear how high water fees are pressing the budgets of nonprofits, houses of worship, residents and small businesses,” said Joshua Fleitman, a spokesman for council member Brandon T. Todd, Ward 4 Democrat. Mr. Todd supports allocating $12 million in the city’s 2019 budget for a “hardship fund” to ease the fee burden.

The council’s fund would allow individuals, nonprofits and businesses to petition for minor relief on a case-by-case basis.

Churches say they are looking for relief from the water charge and from other city regulations that make it hard for them to operate. In April, the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs shut down construction at St. Thomas’ Parish in Dupont Circle for nearly a month because of neighbors’ zoning complaints.

“The money spent to settle this matter could have been used to make this world a better place and transform people’s lives,” the Rev. Alex Dyer said in an email. “We will continue to be the church God is calling us to be and reach out to pray, act and love.”

Mr. Gilbert, a longtime area Baptist leader, said after a decade of “exodus” with houses of worship relocating beyond D.C. lines, the faith community needs relief from city parking regulations, eminent domain and the “outrageous” impervious area charges.

“The church has always been an advocate for the District of Columbia,” said Mr. Gilbert. “But we can’t seem to find an advocate for us.”

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