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Using Funding From Water Agencies to Help Parks

The following is an excerpt from City Parks, Clean Water, a report by the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence that examines the role of urban parks in managing stormwater. This is the eighteenth installment in a series of 19 posts.

Some city water agencies financially reward park agencies for collecting stormwater and keeping it out of the sewer system. That’s the procedure in Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Chesapeake, to name just a few, with credit programs being planned in other cities across the nation. In Austin, where the water utility often uses parkland to manage stormwater, the Parks and Recreation Department has a formalized procedure to charge mitigation fees based on the level of damage to the park and the length of time that the park is impacted. Fees range from 35 percent of the park’s calculated annual value if a park is temporarily inaccessible (such as for underground utility work) to 75 percent if future park development is severely precluded, to 100 percent if the park becomes fully subsumed by an installation. Calculations are based on the number of square feet involved and the going price per square foot of private property adjacent to the particular park. Funds generated are spent to improve the affected park or a nearby site.

“Our mitigation fees aren’t popular with the other agencies,” admitted Parks Director Sara Hensley, “but this policy makes sure we take care of residents when their parks are temporarily closed.” The mitigation requirement has been used to acquire more land or install needed improvements. “We wanted to install a reclaimed water irrigation system at Hancock Golf Course – where we were irrigating with precious and expensive potable water – but we couldn’t afford the upfront costs to build the separate pipes,” she explained. “The water utility covered the $300,000 for us in exchange for easements to construct sewer lines under parkland.”

In Gilbert, Arizona, where parks (just like residences and businesses) must keep stormwater on site, every park includes a detention or retention pond to reduce flash flooding in nearby washes. When the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) recently widened Route 202 through Gilbert, the park department leveraged the water treatment requirement to acquire three new parks. ADOT sold the city parkland at a nominal price in exchange for handling the road’s runoff. Today the new Cosmo, Discovery, and Zanjero parks include a dog run and sports fields that have been engineered to double as detention basins to handle runoff from a 100-year storm.

Cosmo Dog Park, Gilbert, AZ - Seepage Control, INC

Cosmo Dog Park in Gilbert, AZ features a reclaimed water pond that provides a lot of fun for doggy patrons. (Seepage Control, Inc.)



There’s a similar story in Texas, where catastrophic floods in 2006 pushed El Paso to turn to parks for stormwater management. Using money from stormwater fees, the El Paso Water Utility (EPWU) worked with the parks department to create several “park-ponds”– sports fields that double as detention basins.  A concrete holding basin and pumping systems are closed to the public and maintained by the utility while El Paso Parks and Recreation maintains the fields.

The largest is Saipan-Ledo Park, a low-lying tract where poorly planned residences were wiped out by a 2006 flood. The site now has three stepped terraces; the lowest is a fenced-off detention basin maintained by the water utility while the upper two hold regulation-sized sports fields which hold rising water in extreme rainstorms. EPWU built the fields; El Paso Parks and Recreation Department paid for picnic shelters and outdoor fitness equipment, and it now covers the maintenance. The fields flood once every year or two, often requiring aeration afterwards, but, says assistant park director Joel McKnight, the tradeoff is well worth it. “This city has only about half the fields we need, so a little extra maintenance in exchange for two new sports fields has been a very good deal.” (The department petitions the city council for increased maintenance funding based on increased acreage, which has so far worked.)

In many cases, stormwater projects may actually be a venue for park agencies to strike a deal with other players that can greatly benefit the park system in the long run.

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