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

News & Politics

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.”

In a natural system, rainwater doesn’t travel very far. It soaks into the soil and is taken up by plants. The quick infiltration prevents the water from transporting contaminants and keeps waterways from eroding.

But the concrete and asphalt of the urban jungle is anything but natural. Instead of soaking into the ground, rain runs across impervious surfaces, picking up contaminants along the way. By the time it reaches a stream or lake, the runoff can be full of metals, oil, grease, bacteria and other contaminants.

Stormwater also picks up speed. When it hits a stream it scours sediment, dislodges benthic invertebrates and erodes banks, effectively demolishing the natural habitat.

“When you put an impervious surface down it becomes a really good delivery system.” said Roger Bannerman, an environmental specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “We see that in the bottom sediments, we see it in the water quality itself, we see it in the kinds of chemicals we find in the fish.”

Michigan’s Little Black Creek has long been tainted by industrial runoff. An old refinery, a metal-plating company, a wastewater treatment plant and a landfill all contributed to its pollution problems. All those facilities, however, have been shut down.

Today, the biggest continuing threat to the creek comes from the streets around Muskegon.

“Historically, when we developed areas we used gutters and storm drains as our way of channeling that stormwater,” said Al Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, who has been studying Little Black Creek’s stormwater problem since 2007. “We looked at the water as something that needed to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible, and the engineers went about doing that.”

“It’s a matter of understanding the landscape and soils. Developers have to work with nature, work with the land.” - Donald Carpenter, Great Lakes Storm Management Institute, Lawrence Technical University    The state and local governments have been taking steps to reduce the runoff. The Muskegon Conservation District and Mona Lake Watershed Council planted a buffer strip of native vegetation to absorb stormwater runoff from a park. And an education campaign discouraged residents from dumping waste in storm drains that lead straight to the creek.

No one knows if their efforts are paying off with cleaner water, said Alyssa Merten, a project manager for the Muskegon Conservation District. “It is not an easily documented thing,” she said.

Experts say with careful design, 100 percent of stormwater can be infiltrated into the ground or recycled.

Developers can use infiltration basins, green roofs, rain barrels and rain gardens to capture runoff. They can also reduce impervious surfaces by constructing narrow roads and using porous pavement.

These low-impact development techniques can do a perfect job controlling stormwater, said Donald Carpenter, an associate professor of civil engineering and director of the Great Lakes Stormwater Management Institute at Lawrence Technical University in Southfield, Mich.

“It’s a matter of understanding the landscape and soils,” he said. “Developers have to work with nature, work with the land.”

But stormwater control is slow going. Despite the many techniques available for developers to curtail their stormwater output, few jump at the chance.

“Low impact development is not very prevalent at all,” Carpenter said.

“We have not really provided a lot of regulatory direction to states, and so stormwater programs vary all over the country.” -Connie Bosma, Environmental Protection Agency Local governments have been more likely to embrace green infrastructure and incorporate it into public buildings.One of the best examples can be found in Chicago, Beckman said. The city has converted some alleys to absorb water and has more than 2 million square feet of green roofs – including City Hall. In 2008, the city passed a stormwater ordinance requiring new developments and redevelopments to capture the first half inch of runoff or reduce impermeable surfaces by 15 percent.

Developers lag behind municipalities because low impact development goes against the status quo, Carpenter said.

“People fear the unknown,” he said.

And even though studies have shown green development is economically sound, the initial price tag proves to be too much of a hurdle.

“There’s a big misconception that low impact development will cost a lot more money,” he said. “A green roof is more expensive, but you have to look at the whole site and its lifecycle … A simple green roof will pay for itself in five to seven years.”

A green roof, which consists of a roof covered with soil and plants, generally costs about $10 per foot, but it lasts longer than a standard roof and provides insulation that cuts down energy costs. In addition, just three inches of plant growth can reduce runoff by about 50 percent.

“Selling clean water is hard. We still get a lot of grief, but at least we’ve gotten some traction in coming up with solutions.” -Roger Bannerman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources  Most developers only do what they have to, Carpenter said. As a result, few private properties do a good job controlling stormwater.

One high profile exception is the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich. The Ford Rouge Center has the world’s largest green roof. The Rouge Center redesign started in 2003 as part of the plant’s $2 billion overhaul. At project’s end, the facility had porous paving, 10.4 acres of green roof, and wetlands with native vegetation. The natural stormwater management can handle millions of gallons of water and cost the plant roughly one-third of the $50 million necessary to construct a conventional water treatment plant.

The redesign is a “living laboratory of ideas,” said Roger Gaudette, the director of assets management for Ford Land. “We were really at the forefront" of stormwater control, he said.

Keith Schroeder, president of Schroeder Builders, knows the cost of tackling stormwater all too well.

He has spent more than $1 million attempting to prevent runoff from his 100-acre development in DeWitt, Mich., from reaching a nearby manmade lake. He researched ways to limit runoff and overhauled his construction process to curtail contamination during the building phase.

“It is difficult, but it can be done. It’s one of the things I believe is worth the expense,” he said.

Little Black Creek adjacent to a former oil refinery.

But, despite his efforts, the ground won’t soak up enough water to meet his self-appointed goal of restraining runoff from a 100-year flood. It’s left Schroeder in a quandary – the local government already approved his ambitious building plan. Now he worries about running up against tough stormwater standards.

“Cleaning up stormwater is a good thing to do, but they can get requirements that can’t be met,” he said. “Then what do we do?”

The EPA held listening sessions in January for stakeholders and the general public to help develop the new rules. The agency will send questionnaires to developers, state governments and storm sewer operators this year to find out how widespread green techniques already are, and what impacts new rules may have on developers.

Environmentalists say the vague language of the EPA’s current regulations leaves room for developers and governments to interpret how to reduce stormwater to the “maximum extent practicable.” The agency argues that there isn’t as much wiggle room as detractors may surmise.

“I consider that a high bar,” said the EPA's Bosma. “It’s not just that you can do something satisfactorily…The ultimate goal is compliance with water quality standards.”

But Beckman of the NRDC said "one of the big failings" of the stormwater program "is it’s been much more focused on effort than it has been on result."

A panel of the National Research Council agreed in its 2008 report. ”The Clean Water Act regulatory framework for addressing sewage and industrial wastes is not well suited to the more difficult problem of stormwater discharges,” the report says.

The report was a wakeup call that the EPA says it intends to heed. “They felt we needed to do a lot more to strengthen the federal stormwater program and we agreed with this and we viewed this as an opportunity to do that,” Bosma said.

“We have not really provided a lot of regulatory direction to states, and so stormwater programs vary all over the country,” Bosma said.

Several states, including Wisconsin, California and Florida, have already set stormwater standards. Wisconsin was one of the early adopters, but it didn’t come easily. The state is in the process of amending its stormwater rules, and Bannerman expects to see more resistance, but more support as well.

“Selling clean water is hard,” Bannerman said. “We still get a lot of grief, but at least we’ve gotten some traction in coming up with solutions.”

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