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How Drainage Fees Affect Austin's Ability to Deal With Flooding

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
A view of Riverside Drive and South First Street on Oct. 30.

Austin Energy customers may see an increase in their bill this month.
But the increase isn’t because of higher electricity rates.
The City is changing the way it calculates its drainage fee, and the new fee structure directly affects the city’s ability to handle flooding.

Look at the city’s history, and you’ll see how direct that connection is.
The Memorial Day floods back in 1981 took the lives of 13 people and cost the City of Austin $35 million. The next year, it started charging residents a drainage fee.

So, if your property has a lot of grass, it’s a grade-A absorber of rain, but if you’ve got a lot of impervious cover, the city has to handle draining that, Stephanie Lott of the Watershed Protection Department explains.

“Impervious cover is rooftops, concrete, driveways, walkways, anything that will prevent water from being absorbed into the ground,” Lott says.

Up until now, residential properties paid a flat drainage fee of $9.80, but the new fee will be calculated based on how much roof, concrete and driveway on a property. Folks with more greenspace may actually see a decrease in their fee.

“Because what the drainage fee pays for is solutions for flooding, erosion and water pollution,” Lott says. “And the more runoff and the more impervious cover we have, the worst those problems tend to be.”

Drainage fees make up nearly all of the Watershed Department’s budget. Lott says the City expects to pull in roughly $83 million from residential and commercial drainage charges over the next year, about $5 million of that will go to mitigating flood damage.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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