Bay Journal

PA municipalities begin uphill paddle to reach runoff goals, one stroke at a time

Methods to curtail stormwater runoff vary by location as officials realize they have the responsibility for projects

  • By Rona Kobell on October 26, 2016
This rain garden was one of several installed in Altoona, PA, parks to help absorb stormwater before it reaches a local waterway. (Chris Foster / Stiffler, McGraw & Associates) This Lancaster, PA, city park includes a basketball court resurfaced with porous pavement, and reconfigured storm drains that send stormwater to a gravel mat instead of directly to the river.  (Dave Harp) A landscape architect turned a portion of a parking lot into a rain garden in Altoona, PA. The project is one of the ways that Blair County and the city are working together to reduce stormwater runoff. (Chris Foster / Stiffler, McGraw & Associates)

Pennsylvania is beginning to tackle its mammoth and long-neglected stormwater runoff problems, beginning the work in some unlikely places.

Blair County, a good 180 miles from the Chesapeake Bay, has begun to corral the various municipalities within its 340,000 mostly forested acres to work on cleaning the runoff from their developed areas.

Lancaster, a city so firmly rooted in the past that Amish buggies still ply its streets, has become a model nationwide for green streets and green roofs.

And Harrisburg, which declared bankruptcy and couldn’t even air-condition its own city hall five years ago, has managed to restructure itself and begin to unclog its drains. Those efforts are starting to intercept at least a little of the polluted runoff bound for the Susquehanna; instead, the rain soaks into the ground, gets reused or is otherwise kept out of the degraded river.

Still, it’s just a drop in the proverbial bucket. Pennsylvania has achieved only 3 percent of its total urban and suburban stormwater infiltration goal. While the state’s biggest Bay impact comes from its agricultural sector, it also produces more nitrogen-laden urban runoff than any other, with 17.1 million pounds in 2015 according to federal-state Bay Program estimates. That’s almost half of the total nitrogen load from stormwater for all six states and the District of Columbia, and far short of its goals of 13.1 million pounds by 2017 and 10.3 million pounds by 2025.

Complicating matters is that the Keystone State is home to more than 2,500 municipalities, 700 of which are in the Chesapeake watershed. Every township is responsible for its own runoff management — even those with part-time mayors and little money for major infrastructure improvements. The state hasn’t given the runoff reduction effort much of a push to date — the Department of Environmental Protection is so understaffed that it has zero inspectors dedicated to overseeing stormwater practices in the watershed. And until the law changed three years ago, some municipal leaders believed they weren’t even allowed to regulate stormwater.

“There’s a huge learning curve in Pennsylvania for getting these things done,” said Donna Morelli, Pennsylvania director for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “Our townships, some are basically a part-time mayor and a couple of volunteers salting the roads. It’s not much of a government, it’s very small, and it’s trying to deal with something huge like this.”

Now, though, Pennsylvania is committing in its Bay “reboot” plan to reduce its urban/suburban stormwater load for nitrogen by 41 percent, phosphorus by 45 percent and sediment by 50 percent by 2025. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is demanding action because the state has lagged far behind in meeting its cleanup goals under the Chesapeake Bay’s total maximum daily load, or pollution diet.

Though the Bay restoration effort received a $28 million infusion of state and federal funds in October, that money is targeted to help farmers control polluted runoff from their fields and animal feeding operations, which is the leading source of Bay pollution.

In some cases, local officials have only recently embraced their authority to regulate runoff, let alone seek grants and develop partnerships to tackle it.

Legislation passed in 2013 expressly authorizes the creation of municipal stormwater authorities. Though some jurisdictions had created authorities, many believed they were not legal without express permission from the state legislature, said Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. That belief may have delayed action, but there were other problems as well. A 2012 report by the EPA outlined shortcomings at the state DEP, which only had five employees in its central office to process all permits for stormwater.

Campbell said the situation is still “dire.” Department spokesman Neil Shader said that staffing remains an issue, and water programs have been particularly hard hit by budget cuts.

Even with all of the challenges, some municipalities are taking action.

“One of our biggest challenges is how do we operationalize all these good works?” Campbell asked. “How do we make it not just the exception to the rule, but the standard? How do we get it to take root in all these other places?”

They have, in some cases, learned from mistakes made in Maryland, which passed and then repealed a mandate for the 10 largest jurisdictions to assess a stormwater fee.

Opponents derided the fee as a “rain tax,” and momentum built to overturn it. The jurisdictions still must find a way to fund projects such as stream restoration and rain gardens that will reduce the amount of stormwater flowing into creeks and streams. But under a new law, they can decide how they wish to do it — or not do it, as environmental advocates contend that despite state approval, many Maryland localities are skimping on local funding for stormwater cleanup.

Even with that hiccup, “Maryland is much further along than Pennsylvania,” said Dan Nees, executive director of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of Maryland. The 10 largest jurisdictions deliver more than 80 percent of the stormwater load, and include dozens of municipalities instead of hundreds. Nees, who is undertaking a stormwater study in Virginia, said he expects to find that state is about on pace with Maryland. Virginia already has 15 stormwater utilities, more than any other watershed state. They’re all in the Bay watershed.

Lancaster: leading with green

About five years ago, Lancaster faced a serious dilemma as its combined sewer and stormwater systems regularly overflowed, polluting the Conestoga River. The EPA demanded that the city clean it up.

In a combined system, the stormwater mixes with the sewage, clogging sewer lines during rainstorms and sending large volumes of diluted but untreated wastewater into nearby streams and rivers. Untangling the web of combined systems is expensive, difficult — and time-consuming.

At that time, green infrastructure projects were relatively new, and mostly done in places like Portland, OR, and Chicago. But Lancaster’s mayor, Rick Gray, and its public works director, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, decided they would rather spend $140 million over 25 years to put in projects that would absorb runoff and provide public green space than spend $300 million on the storage and treatment of the combined sewage and rain water.

The EPA required convincing, and may still. The city is fighting an agency decision to place them under a consent order for millions of gallons of pollution entering the Conestoga after heavy storms from their combined system. City officials are still hoping the infiltration systems they’ve put in will convince the agency they are tackling the problem effectively so that they will not need the additional pressure.

Lancaster’s approach is systematic. Every time an alley needs to be repaved, the city tries to use porous pavement. Every time a street needs resurfacing, the city endeavors to make it a green street with vegetated “retention areas” to absorb the rainfall runoff.

The city has 60,000 residents and 100,000 square feet of green roofs, more per capita than any other municipality in the country, according to Karl Graybill, Lancaster’s environmental planner. The city started by turning its own buildings into demonstration projects, but moved on to greening efforts at Franklin and Marshall College, at a popular local brewery and at a furniture store.

After many projects were in place, the city assessed a stormwater fee, with little opposition. Initially, Lancaster struggled to find contractors who could do the work or developers who wanted to build green. That’s less of an issue now.

“Developers are coming to the city and asking how they can fit into our green infrastructure,” said planner Douglas Smith. “And now, it feels like we have everyone on board in the city. It was no surprise when we implemented the fee, and people could see what it was going toward.”

Though hailed as a model, Lancaster has faced challenges. Public projects have come along, thanks to grant funding, but private projects are not where the city would like, Graybill said. The city has hired a “ground-truthing” person and is measuring and modeling to quantify the results. And some of the park projects have not gotten the community buy-in that city officials had hoped for, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods. Going forward, Graybill said, the city will work harder on outreach.

“It’s not really been a tradition in Lancaster to outreach,” he said. “We’re still pretty top-down.”

Harrisburg: breaking away

For much of the last decade, Harrisburg was not in a position to pay for stormwater improvements. For a time, it couldn’t even pay to keep the air conditioning running at City Hall. In 2011, the city declared bankruptcy, a rare move for a sizable municipality. Harrisburg had borrowed $125 million to rebuild its trash incinerator, which city officials believed would be a revenue booster. They miscalculated, and the incinerator left the city nearly $300 million in debt. (Not helping matters was a former mayor’s decision to spend $7.8 million on memorabilia for a Wild West museum in Central Pennsylvania.)

Maintenance was deferred on the city’s combined sewer and stormwater system. Clogged storm drains were not unclogged. The city’s wastewater plant, which was the largest point source of nitrogen in the Susquehanna, had no money to begin its upgrade.

Fortunes changed in 2013, when the city spun off its water authority and created Capitol Region Water. The agency, with its own budget, oversaw the Harrisburg plant upgrade and then turned its attention to stormwater, with financial assistance in low-interest loans from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority. Capital Region Water voted in 2014 to increase rates by about 8 percent to help fund the improvements. In 2015, Capital Region Water and the EPA announced a settlement of previous violations, with the utility agreeing to spend more than $82 million on continued improvements.

The city has a campaign called City Beautiful H20. It has been working on maintenance issues — about half of the 4,000 clogged storm drains are unclogged — and it also has a community greening plan and a green infrastructure plan. A $125,000 grant from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources helped to fund the city’s efforts to engage neighborhoods in stormwater control efforts. Over the next couple of years, officials said, residents will start to see projects in the ground.

Andrew Bliss, the authority’s community outreach manager, echoes the other Pennsylvania officials who say it’s easier to win public support for local improvements than to peg projects to restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’ve pushed the message that this is about beautifying our neighborhoods, improving our lives and improving our local quality. We really want people in the city to drive this,” he said. “We were so slow to do things for many years. I never want to be beating our chest. We’re definitely picking up speed, but it’s taken us awhile to get there.”

Blair County: coming together

Blair County, PA, is home to the city of Altoona, an outpost of Penn State University, and a hospital system. Its largest industry is agriculture, its largest land use is forests.

Blair County is also home to the Juniata River, a major Susquehanna tributary. Parts of the river are under a total maximum daily load because of pollution. The watershed includes 10 small cities that require stormwater permits. Few have staff to apply for them and mitigate any issues.

So, four years ago, the municipalities pooled resources and, with the DEP’s approval, they are acting as one entity for the purpose of reducing stormwater. Together, they have undertaken several stormwater projects in public parks and one at the YMCA. Coordinating it all is a familiar face: Donna Fisher of the Blair County Soil Conservation District.

Though soil conservation districts often work on agricultural projects, in this case, Fisher said, the municipalities decided the office had the skills to run the projects. Now, Fisher is looking to hire a stormwater coordinator who will be paid by the municipalities.

Grants totaling $1 million, with technical help from American Rivers, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, and the Environmental Finance Center, helped to get the project off the ground. Fisher started an education campaign about stormwater, made a website and put in some demonstration projects with the funds.

Blair County has not yet created a stormwater authority or assessed fees. It is considering these steps, but it’s started slowly, a milestone considering its distance from the Bay.

“We are pretty far removed, so it’s a difficult connection, but obviously, if you look at a map, it’s pretty easy to see,” Fisher said.

York County: joint permit

York County may be closer to the Susquehanna, but its job was tougher than Blair’s. It had to wrangle 44 municipalities, persuade them all to join one plan, then pay for those practices. It worked; only one community, Franklin Township, is not in the county’s cooperative stormwater agreement.

The municipalities operate under one joint stormwater permit and get credit for pooled practices. In York’s case, the county planning commission is coordinating the projects. So far, they have embarked on two stream restorations, three bio-retention ponds, one bioswale, one porous pavement park and one riparian forest buffer. All of these practices will help, said Felicia Dell, executive director of the York County Planning Commission. But they must do more, she said.

There are 70 projects in the pipeline. The plan is to leverage $200,000 a year over the five-year life of the permit that the group collects from its pool of municipalities and can use to obtain more grants.

“We’re ahead within Pennsylvania, but for our goals, we are so far behind. I can’t run fast enough,” Dell said. “We have over 300 miles of impaired streams in York County. I can’t get anything moved off that list.”

About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell


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