By Todd Feathers
DRACUT -- On a rainy day, walk along any Dracut street and you will likely pass by a tiny stream trickling into a grated catch basin.
You will probably ignore it.
But the stormwater flowing through these innocuous fixtures is the source of most water pollution in Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Increasingly, it is also the source of great consternation for town officials, who are bracing for the impact of an expensive, unfunded federal mandate to better manage their stormwater systems.
"It's one of those necessary evils," Dracut Town Manager Jim Duggan said. "It's something we have to address."
The regulations -- finalized by the EPA in April 2016 and set to take effect in July -- will force Dracut to increase its stormwater budget from about $42,000 a year to about $1.4 million, which the town hopes to cover through an annual fee of about $74 for most single-family homes.
"I wish we could avoid this," Duggan said. "I wish we could absorb it, but the general fund just can't handle the $1.4 million."
The EPA's regulations -- known as the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, or MS4, permit -- fall under the authority of the federal Clean Water Act. Massachusetts is one of only four states, including New Hampshire, in which the EPA, rather than a state environmental agency, is responsible for setting and enforcing Clean Water Act stormwater rules.
That arrangement, critics say, allowed the EPA to draw up a wish list of rules and implement them with little concern for the burden placed on municipalities.
State Auditor Suzanne Bump's office, which estimates that Massachusetts communities face unmet stormwater needs totaling $1.6 billion over the next 20 years, has recommended that the state take control of the regulations.
The EPA stands by the regulations, a spokesman said, adding that the agency spent eight years developing the permit and worked hard to tailor it to fit within the means of cities and towns.
"We spent a lot of time reaching out to communities and listening to their concerns," spokesman David Deegan wrote in an email. "We published two drafts and paid close attention to the comments we received from the cities and towns. We made many changes in response to those comments. ... Without a big improvement in the way we manage stormwater, we can't restore water quality in Massachusetts."
Dracut's proposed stormwater utility fee will go before Town Meeting for a vote in June. In the meantime, town officials are embarking on a public-education push to ensure that residents know how they can minimize pollution, and aren't surprised if a new fee lands in their mailbox.
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