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Multi-Pronged Stormwater Outreach Program

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El Paso is situated on the western tip of Texas, on the U.S./Mexico border in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert. The average yearly rainfall is only about 8 inches, usually occurring in the summer months of July, August and September. But in August of 2006, El Paso was hit with 15 inches of rain in only one week, resulting in city-wide flooding and over $200 million in flood damage to properties and businesses, completely wiping out two neighborhoods. Where was the system of culverts, channels, drains, reservoirs and drainage ponds designed to contain and convey flood waters? The stormwater system was there – all 150 miles of it. But maintenance and repair of the stormwater system was at the bottom of the “to do” list for a desert city facing many competing priorities. In addition, there were serious deficiencies in the current stormwater system, and no overall plan for improvements to provide a higher level of protection.

In 2007, the City Council made the decision to create a separate Stormwater Utility and transfer management and control to the El Paso Water Utilities (EPWU) Public Service Board (PSB). The Stormwater Utility would have dedicated funding for maintenance and improvements, something that had never been possible before. The creation of the Stormwater Utility within EPWU made sense – EPWU has successfully managed El Paso's water and wastewater service for decades. In fact, EPWU had recently completed construction of the largest inland desalination facility in the world, which helps to ensure a sustainable supply of water for residents and businesses that call El Paso home.

As a public enterprise, EPWU assesses fees for the services it provides. On March 1, 2008 the utility began assessing a stormwater fee and sent bills to residents and businesses throughout the service area. The fee system is based on the amount of impervious surface area on your property: the more runoff you contribute, the more you will pay. Despite having provided information about the fees and obtaining input from its Public Working Committee, EPWU experienced another storm: a storm of protests from various sectors in the business community about the size of their fees. The controversy resulted in a petition drive to transfer responsibility for the stormwater system back to the City. An ordinance to make that change was put to the voters in May of 2009, but the measure failed, leaving EPWU in control of the Stormwater Utility. This result was largely dependent on stakeholder understanding and support fostered by:

The creation and management of the Stormwater Master Plan Community Advisory Committee

A comprehensive public outreach program employing a variety of strategies and activities throughout the community

A commitment by the Public Service Board and EPWU staff to emphasize transparency and accessibility in all their actions

This presentation will focus on the Stormwater Master Plan Community Advisory Committee process. The committee was composed of 34 representatives of businesses, environmental and recreational concerns, neighborhood associations across El Paso, engineers, the educational sector, community service organizations and the City of El Paso, as well as local, state, federal and international agency representation. A neutral facilitator from Katz & Associates guided committee discussions, and staff from URS, the City of El Paso and EPWU made informational presentations to the group and responded to questions. The resulting master plan not only provides a road map for future stormwater system mprovements, it provides this road map in an accessible format that is easily understood by the community, thanks to the advisory committee.

At the same time, EPWU and the Katz & Associates team developed and implemented a comprehensive community outreach program that included:

a revamped Web site

production of two educational videos that describe the stormwater system maintenance improvements and the master plan completed by EPWU

an active speakers bureau consisting of over 30 presentations

a bilingual (English and Spanish) bill insert that explains maintenance improvements and the master plan

newspaper editorials written by EPWU staff and PSB Board members

magazine articles written by EPWU aff

newspaper/magazine/website announcements

TV news and newspaper feature stories about stormwater improvements

useful and informative fact sheets and other materials

development of a bilingual virtual tour of the system accessible through the EPWU website.

EPWU also began “live treaming” of the Public Service Board meetings on its website to complement the taped versions of the meetings had already been airing on the City TV channel after the meetings. The combined outreach efforts and changes in the PSB's agenda format helped to underscore the accessibility and transparency critics had questioned.

EPWU has provided a model of the importance of stakeholder understanding and support, one of the ten management attributes. When the votes were counted on May 9, 2009, voters chose to keep EPWU in control of the Stormwater Utility by a 65 percent margin

Keywords: Stakeholder; flooding; public outreach; stakeholder outreach; stakeholders; stormwater

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2010-01-01

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