A financing idea from the 1970s is taking current stormwater management by, well, storm.

Localities in a growing number of states are setting up stormwater utilities. Instead of relying on the property tax to finance stormwater systems--and forcing runoff services to compete with schools and other community needs for money--the localities set up utilities that collect a fee tied to the amount of impervious ground on a property. Property owners who create the most runoff are charged the most money. A business with a large, paved parking lot, for instance, pays more than a business with a lot of grassy areas on its property.

"It's more like a user fee and less like a general tax," says Dan Thompson, executive director of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities. "It's a fairer way of paying for a needed service."

The reason for the rise of the fee approach is the mounting costs of managing runoff. "In the old days when we didn't do anything significant, the cost was so modest that it didn't matter who paid," Thompson says. "Now that the cost has increased, that has caused municipal officials to revaluate paying by property tax."

The cost increase is due in part to increased urbanization and agricultural development, but also to heightened concern for stormwater's ability to add to environmental distress. Rainwater runoff, for instance, can pick up a wide variety of pollutants, ranging from silt and animal waste to sewage and oil.

Regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which have previously been fairly lax, are expected to become much stricter and that is likely to push up the costs further.