Stormwater Program Overhaul: A Step in the Right Direction

The current stormwater program in the United States is on the brink of change...

by Angela Godwin

The current stormwater program in the United States is on the brink of change. A recent report from the National Academies suggests significant changes to the current EPA stormwater program are required to improve the steadily degrading quality of our nation's waterways.

The report, conducted at EPA's request, suggests a number of strategies that could be implemented in an effort to stop the effects of urbanization over the past 30 years.

“The report does a great job of outlining the whole issue of stormwater and impervious surfaces,” said G. Tracy Mehan, former EPA assistant administrator for water. “Stormwater is a unique and very challenging policy area and EPA had a clear sense that they need to do something different.”

Perhaps the most critical recommendation in the report is to change the current stormwater permitting structure to a watershed–based approach, which would base stormwater discharge permits on watershed boundaries as opposed to political boundaries.

“I'm a big fan of watershed–based permitting,” said Mehan. “I think the committee is really onto something.”

Nathan Gardner–Andrews, council for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), was also pleased with the recommendation. “This is something we [at NACWA] have been talking about for a while,” he said. “The Clean Water Act has been a phenomenal tool for the past 30+ years, but we're reaching a point now where it's somewhat limited in its ability to address [stormwater] issues.”

Under today's permitting program, stormwater is covered by general permits, resulting in literally hundreds of thousands of regulated parties under the general permitting program. “It's increased the workload for the agency tremendously,” said Mehan.

The approach outlined in the report would have municipalities, as opposed to state or federal government, taking the lead in the permitting process. A municipal lead permittee, such as a city, would work in partnership with other municipalities in the watershed as co–permittees.

“You would then have a more holistic approach,” suggested Gardner–Andrews. “Instead of looking at stormwater in terms of construction and industry and POTWs and municipalities, now suddenly everyone's in the same pot.”

“The idea of merging these entities and getting them under one permit makes sense,” said Mehan. “But in some cases I think we're going to find we'll have to make some statutory amendments.”

“Conceptually I agree that we need to be looking at stormwater from a watershed approach,” said Dick Champion, Jr., director of the Independence, MO, Water Pollution Control Department and chairman of the Clean Water America Alliance. But he cautioned, “It's going to require a high level of conversation, cooperation, and ultimately somewhere there's got to be some funding.”

While adopting a watershed approach represents a radical shift that will take time to investigate and test, there are smaller–scale changes that can be implemented in the meantime to begin to restore the health of community watersheds. The report recommends the use of non–structural stormwater control measures, such as green infrastructure and low impact development techniques, in particular.

“Making greater use of these techniques, whether it's green roofs or porous pavement or vegetative swales, can result in dramatic improvements in your water quality,” said Gardner–Andrews.

“We've got a lot of opportunity here, both to save money and also to generate multiple environmental benefits with green infrastructure,” said Mehan.

“We're masters of getting rid of stormwater,” said Champion, “but it's causing destruction somewhere else in the watershed. We've got to learn how to work up in the beginnings of these watersheds so that the lower parts of it can survive. The technology needs to continue to evolve and emerge.”

Many communities around the nation have already forged ahead and embraced green infrastructure. Cities such as Portland and Seattle are well known for their low impact development efforts, but even traditionally gray cities like Cincinnati and Chicago are discovering the benefits of incorporating green techniques into their stormwater control programs.

“There's improved aesthetic and property values have gone up in communities that have adopted green infrastructure,” said Gardner–Andrews. “When you bring those examples to other parts of the country, people can see there's a tangible benefit beyond the good feeling of doing something green.”

“The issue of stormwater and impervious surfaces is really the issue of the coming decade,” said Mehan. “And it's an issue that we've got to come to grips with.”

“The report is a good start,” agreed Champion. “But we need to be a stakeholder to the process of implementation, which is perhaps best regarded as a journey and not a destination.”

The full report titled “Urban Stormwater Management in the United States” is available on the National Academies website at www.NationalAcademies.org.

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