Check out this opinion piece in the Providence Journal by Jed Thorp, state director for Clean Water Action and founding member of the Rhode Island Green Infrastructure Coalition. In this article, Thorp explains the urgent need for Rhode Island to better manage heavy rains and stormwater flooding in the future, as the September rains and flooding gave us a glimpse of the “new climate normal” we will be facing in the wake of climate change.


The heavy rains and related flooding that much of Rhode Island experienced in September were a glimpse into our future. Alex Kuffner’s article “Deep Trouble” (News, Sept. 7) accurately referred to such extreme rain events as a “new climate normal.” And that “new normal” should inspire Rhode Island communities to think about what steps can be taken now to better manage heavy rains and stormwater flooding in the future.

Climate change impacts are already being felt in Rhode Island, and those impacts will only become more severe. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sea level rise in Rhode Island has already caused an increase in tidal flooding along the coast, with future sea level rise projected to triple the frequency of dangerous tidal flooding. Overall precipitation is projected to increase — particularly in the winter and spring — along with the number of extreme rain events.

Adding to the problem is the loss of green space and increase in impervious surfaces like roofs, roads and parking lots which send much of the rain that falls into stormwater collection systems without having a chance to be absorbed into the ground. Along the way, that stormwater carries with it various forms of pollution and debris which foul our waterways and clog our stormwater catch basins.

Cities and towns shoulder much of the financial and labor burden for maintaining and cleaning those catch basins and underground pipes, but strained municipal budgets often make it hard to prioritize the spending necessary to keep our stormwater management systems working properly.

There is no single “silver bullet” solution to the problems of increased precipitation, inadequate drainage and future flooding; a combination of strategies will be needed. But one of the most impactful steps local governments can take to better manage stormwater is to create a stormwater utility.

A stormwater utility is a revenue generating tool that enables municipalities to better manage stormwater by creating a dedicated fund for stormwater management. Stormwater utilities function much like a water or sewer utility by generating user fees based on the amount of stormwater generated on a property. Fees are assessed by measuring the amount of impervious surface on a parcel, which also incentivizes the installation of green infrastructure and other on-site stormwater management strategies.

Fees generated from stormwater districts can be used for operation and maintenance costs, planning and engineering, and street sweeping and vacuuming of catch basins. Cost savings and efficiencies can be realized when cities and towns join together to create regional stormwater utility districts.

Over 2,000 stormwater utilities exist nationwide but, despite enabling state legislation being passed 20 years ago, no Rhode Island community has yet taken advantage of this option.

Stormwater utilities create a stable and predictable revenue stream for stormwater management; are flexible and can adapt to changing needs over time; and are equitable in that costs are assessed based on a property owner’s actual contribution to the problem. As we work to better manage stormwater, the creation of stormwater utilities should be seriously considered by Rhode Island’s cities and towns.