EPA Tools Target Urban Water Management
Stormwater seems to be a hot topic around the country these days. Recent flooding on the East Coast has refocused attention on the importance of stormwater infrastructure, and any casual Internet search reveals thousands of stories related to stormwater runoff.
By Nikos Singelis
Stormwater seems to be a hot topic around the country these days. Recent flooding on the East Coast has refocused attention on the importance of stormwater infrastructure, and any casual Internet search reveals thousands of stories related to stormwater runoff. Similarly, there is also growing interest in stormwater at trade shows, conferences, and among companies that produce pollution control technologies. In keeping with this trend, EPA’s Earth Day celebration featured an event focusing on “green infrastructure.” Even the EPA website, which covers the entire NPDES program, shows the intense level of interest in stormwater runoff (see Fig. 1).
So why all the interest? One obvious reason is the NPDES Phase II regulations, which became effective in 2003. Of particular interest to the 5,000 municipalities that are working to implement these regulations is the nearing date by which they will be expected to have their programs fully up and running. The Phase II regulations allow five years from the date the permit is issued for municipalities to fully implement their stormwater management programs. Forty-five states are now authorized to implement the NPDES program and the majority of these states issued their Phase II MS4 permits in 2003 and 2004. As a result, the five-year timeframe is quickly approaching.
Another important reason for all the interest is the public’s growing awareness and concern for environmental issues, a trend that seems to be re-emerging around the country. Runoff-related problems are the most common cause of water pollution problems today, and people are realizing that rapid increases in the amount of impervious surfaces - a direct result of urban growth and sprawl - are having significant impacts on water quality in many watersheds.
Figure 1. Monthly Hits on NPDES Website
The following article discusses a few areas that should be important to Phase II communities and some key tools that are available to help build effective municipal storm- water programs.
Green infrastructure may be a relatively new term to some, but it’s intended to capture a common set of ideas and principles for managing stormwater. More specifically, green infrastructure emphasizes techniques that reduce the amount of pollutants in stormwater while also reducing the overall volume of runoff during storm events, usually by encouraging infiltration. These techniques generally make use of natural processes to treat stormwater and are designed to help restore the natural hydrology of a site or area. The term “green infrastructure” encompasses ideas such as low impact development, better site design, conservation design, etc. The terminology itself is not important; it’s the idea of using natural processes and techniques to encourage infiltration and pollutant removal that are needed in storm- water solutions.
One of the key challenges that municipalities and states will face is updating their design standards and guidance materials. Many of these design manuals are outdated and focus on techniques that are not particularly effective at either pollutant removal or encouraging infiltration.
Another area that needs careful consideration by local decision makers is the impact that future growth could have on local watersheds. Urban sprawl is an issue that is frequently discussed from a wide variety of perspectives, including impacts on open space, commuting patterns, quality of life, air pollution and, of course, water pollution. Increases in impervious surfaces lead to predictable declines in stream health, particularly for more sensitive headwaters and smaller streams, wetlands, and lakes (see Fig. 2). The amount and impact of impervious surfaces in urban watersheds is a key water quality challenge, and addressing it is not always easy. A wide variety of factors can drive sprawl and lead to the installation of unnecessary impervious surfaces. For instance, zoning on large parcels (one acre and above is increasingly common) spreads development and increases the number of roads that are needed. This development pattern forces homeowners to make more car trips each day, therefore increasing the number of parking spaces needed when they arrive at their destinations. All these impervious surfaces in a watershed alter the natural hydrology of the system by increasing the amount of runoff and decreasing the amount of infiltration and recharge.
Figure 2. Relationship Between Impervious Cover and Stream Quality
EPA has been working over the last several years to raise awareness of the impacts of urban sprawl on the environment. There are three key documents that I would recommend to you for further reading on this topic.
Building Effective MS4 Programs
As stated earlier, approximately 5,000 Phase II communities are working to build programs that implement the six minimum measures found in the Phase II regulations. From many interactions with municipal officials around the country, it is clear that this is not an easy task to accomplish, and that communities are looking for resources and guidance to help them efficiently put their programs in place. Municipalities also want to ensure that their programs are effective - that they have a real and positive effect on the environment - and that limited resources are targeted appropriately. Every community will likely have a different set of problems to resolve and a different set of circumstances that will impact how those problems are addressed. In the stormwater program, EPA wants to encourage communities to use the watershed planning techniques and Smart Growth concepts discussed above to help set priorities among the six minimum measures and to tailor the program to best meet the unique challenges they are facing.
In addition to planning, every stormwater community should be evaluating and assessing the effectiveness of its program on a regular basis. A good stormwater program, in my opinion, is best developed using “big picture” tools, such as watershed planning, and is then continually refined using an iterative approach. Recently, EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management office issued an MS4 Program Evaluation Guide to help state (and EPA) personnel evaluate MS4 programs. Although this guide was developed for use by NPDES permitting authorities, it could also be used and adapted by a Phase II community to conduct a self-evaluation. Communities can use this tool in a number of ways, including concentrating on one aspect of their program at a time. The Evaluation Guide is available in Microsoft Word and PDF formats so that it can be customized to suit individual needs.
Earlier this year, EPA completed work on a new tool called “Developing Your Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan: A Guide for Construction Sites.” The new SWPPP guide is designed to help construction site operators develop better quality SWPPPs. It is intended to be used in conjunction with the applicable NPDES Construction General Permit and describes many of the common elements that a good SWPPP ought to contain. The guide also includes a SWPPP template and an inspection form (both in MS Word) that can be modified and customized to meet the requirements of a particular permit as well as the unique needs of the construction site.
Qualifying Local Programs
Over the last year, EPA has been working with state counterparts to further the concept of Qualifying Local Programs (QLP) for construction site management in an effort to streamline the requirements that construction site operators must follow. Under this provision, state (and EPA) NPDES permitting authorities can designate local programs that have the basic elements outlined in the regulations. As a result, construction site operators that manage sites within the jurisdiction of a qualifying local program end up with one set of requirements (the local ones) to meet both local and NPDES permit requirements.
The QLP concept has already been used successfully in a handful of states (e.g., CT, MI, CO) and several others are developing approaches to implement it in their NPDES Construction General Permits. Being designated as a QLP generally doesn’t place any additional burden on the local program, and it simplifies issues for construction site operators.
Stormwater Webcasts, Training, and Other Key Resources
If you haven’t already tuned in, you might want to check out EPA’s series of Webcasts specifically designed for municipal stormwater managers. EPA is in its second year of these bimonthly Webcasts, which have covered a wide variety of pertinent topics, including construction site management, low impact development, stormwater utilities, education and outreach, and more.
Previous Webcasts are recorded and available for viewing at any time, and can also be downloaded for viewing on a computer or iPod. They are useful training tools for new staff or refreshers for anyone working on a stormwater program. In addition, EPA periodically offers multiday workshops for stormwater managers and staff. Check EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management website for the latest offerings.
There are two important documents that will be of use to municipal stormwater managers. First, EPA’s “Getting In Step” manual and video for developing effective education and outreach campaigns provides a step-by-step approach that is easily understood and followed. The agency has taught this method to thousands of stormwater professionals around the country and it’s the backbone of many successful stormwater, nonpoint source, and watershed education and outreach efforts. Second, the “Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE)” manual published by the Center for Watershed Protection is a comprehensive reference and guide to implementing this minimum measure. The IDDE manual contains information on setting up a program, conducting field investigations, and proper laboratory methods.
Finally, I encourage you to sign up for NPDES News, EPA’s periodic e-mail newsletter on the latest happenings in the NPDES permitting program. To sign up, visit www.epa.gov/npdes and click on the NPDES News icon.
About the Author:
Nikos Singelis is a Senior Program Analyst with EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.