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Too Much Pavement, Too Little Oversight: Why Stormwater Is a Leading Water Pollution Problem

Across the country, stormwater runoff hammers thousands of rivers, streams and lakes. Now the EPA is gearing up to tighten federal stormwater rules that have come under fire.

Little Black Creek has a long history of abuse.

The stream in western Michigan runs through an industrialized area, and its sediment has some of the highest levels of cadmium found anywhere in the Great Lakes. Its banks are so eroded and its water so contaminated that it is unable to sustain its native, cold-water trout.

And, every time it rains, one of Little Black Creek’s biggest threats rushes in.

Nearly one-third of the land around the creek is buried under urban concrete, asphalt and buildings. Rain water is shunted into storm drains, pushing the contaminated sediment downstream and delivering a fresh load of toxic runoff and snowmelt from city streets to Little Black Creek.

Across the country, stormwater runoff hammers thousands of rivers, streams and lakes. Communities are left to struggle with the consequences of too much pavement and too little oversight.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to tighten federal stormwater rules that have been criticized by environmental groups and deemed ineffective by a national panel of researchers.

Experts say careful planning of developments, homes and buildings can alleviate nearly all the contamination from urban runoff. But few builders and developers are voluntarily incorporating such techniques into their plans, and regulating runoff has been left to states and cities.

Under the EPA's current permitting system, builders must limit stormwater runoff to the "maximum extent practicable." But a 2008 National Research Council report criticized the rules and recommended that the agency set guidelines for flow and contaminants.

Responding to the criticism, the EPA is now writing new regulations - expected to be enacted in 2012 - that will define what is expected of developers, possibly by setting limits for stormwater volume or concentrations of contaminants.

The rules may include guidelines for techniques such as rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, green streets and porous pavements, said Connie Bosma, the municipal branch chief in the EPA’s water permits division.

“Whatever we can do to make sure it infiltrates on site instead of flowing across the land and picking up the pollutants,” she said. “Those are the kinds of approaches we would like to encourage.”

“You have marine impacts, ecosystem impacts, and public health impacts... It’s really a multiplicity of problems. ”   -David Beckman, National Resource Defense Council That’s a tall order for developers left footing the bill and overhauling their construction plans.

“We obviously don’t think this is a good time for any additional rule making on stormwater discharge,” said Ty Asfaw, an environmental policy analyst with the National Association of Home Builders.

Developers were hit with federal construction runoff regulations in December, and every new rule carries a hefty price tag, especially for those that face changes to meet new targets.

The EPA knows it won’t be easy. “Wherever the rain drops it flows into a stream. It’s not like a wastewater treatment plant where you have one outlet and it’s much easier to control that outlet,” Bosma said. “Getting a solution requires action from a lot of different components of a community,” she said.

Little Black Creek flowing under Seaway Drive.

Nationwide, stormwater is a leading source of water pollution. About 13 percent of U.S. rivers, 18 percent of  lakes and 32 percent of estuaries are classified as impaired by stormwater, which means they are rendered unsafe for swimming or fishing. It also contributes to the degradation of many more waterways.

“You have marine impacts, ecosystem impacts, and public health impacts,” said David Beckman, co-director of the National Resource Defense Council’s national water program. “It’s really a multiplicity of problems. Pollutants in urban settings are many and of a wide variety, and all of them - if you don’t treat and successfully reduce the pollution - are getting into the receiving water, be it a river or lake or the ocean.”

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