In Our View: Stumbling on Stormwater

Clark County should not be siphoning money from road fund for infrastructure

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In numerous ways, Clark County continues to pay for its multiyear fiasco surrounding stormwater regulations. The latest issue to face county commissioners and be loosely related to stormwater revolves around something brought up last week by Director of Environmental Services Don Benton during a presentation to the Clark County Commissioners.

We're guessing that, if they had their way, the commissioners would just as soon never have to talk about stormwater again. But we're also guessing they realize it's part of the job, so talk they will. But first, last week they listened, as Benton expressed concerns with the status of the county's clean water fund. The fund pays for operations, maintenance, and capital facilities improvements to the stormwater infrastructure. It is paid for with development fees charged on new construction, but it also is being subsidized by the county's road fund.

Benton is right to raise questions about that practice.

"This transfer could face problems in a state audit," Benton told commissioners. "It's hard to make the nexus; we make a nexus, but the math was questionable. The transfer could face an audit finding based on the math used to support the transfer."

That's not the clearest explanation, but it appears as though there are some questions that need to be addressed. Benton also said the clean water fund would be in financial peril without the money from the road fund. In addition, he claimed that the county had built out infrastructure projects beyond legal requirements and had compromised the clean water fund's balance, reading from a memo he wrote to Commissioners: "The continued overspending on nonmandated programs can only be described as irresponsible at best and incompetence at worst."

Undoubtedly, there are more diplomatic ways in which to bring up the issues at hand, but tact does not appear to be one of Benton's strengths. Commissioner Steve Stuart said the language involved was accusatory and, according to Columbian reporter Erik Hidle, fellow commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke appeared to agree.

Madore, who joined the commission at the start of this year, said: "Rather than task the department of environmental services with, 'Go out there and discover what didn't we have to build' — it's already built. Let's just assume everyone had good intentions, and it was to try to keep the county out of trouble, and just focus on the solution."

Solutions, however, have been difficult to come by for the county when the problems involve stormwater. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Clark County violated the Clean Water Act for three years, from 2008-11. In short, under an agreement with the state Department of Ecology, the county had been overbuilding stormwater infrastructure in an effort to bank mitigation credits for use with future development. After losing several court rulings, the county is preparing for negotiations that will determine how much it is liable for in damages.

The federal standard for the runoff of stormwater — which contains harmful pollutants such as oil, pesticides and toxic metals — is that newly developed land must drain as slowly as it did prior to Euro-American settlement.

Because of that, roads are, indeed linked to stormwater runoff. But the county must ensure that its clean water fund is financially stable and is not siphoning excess money from the road fund. The mantra in many quarters has been that development will pay for itself. Stormwater infrastructure is one area in which that should be the case.