Looking out over our parched Chesapeake landscapes, which in many areas have gone for weeks without rain as I write this, it seems odd to think about issues like stormwater and erosion and sediment. From barren city parks, to seared and stunted crops, to stands of sycamores along the creeks dropping their leaves in the summer heat, the baked earth waits for showers that never seem to come.
But they will arrive, and if they come too quickly, the hard soils will at first drink in very little and the water will run off directly into our streams and rivers. And it will carry with it the nutrients and toxics and other pollutants which have accumulated on the land. This is what experts call the “first flush,” the first quarter to half inch of rain which carries the highest concentrations of these pollutants. And we are in for one hell of a first flush of stormwater some day soon, given how long the stuff has been gathering on parking lots and lawns and highways.
My own environmental awakening began with stormwater nearly a half century ago. As a boy growing up in the Delaware suburbs, I spent my formative years living near a brook called Shellpot Creek. It was at first an attractive stream running through the woods behind the houses of the subdivision. We would even find fish and crayfish in the pools. But over the years the creek began to change from the cutting of trees and the building of developments upstream. It would dry up between rains, and it would flash flood with storms; it scoured and flattened and widened and lost its riffles and pools. By the time I went off to college, Shellpot Creek was little more than a festering, mosquito-breeding, open storm sewer.
And I vowed that my children would not grow up in a decaying natural environment (I kept that vow; my kids were all raised in the city). So I’ve long believed that we need to attack these problems of erosion and sediment and stormwater, if not for reasons of saving the Bay, for the sake of protecting our brooks and streams.
The more we learn about stream systems, the more we understand how destructive stormwater can be. While there have been programs to deal with erosion and sediment in all the jurisdictions of the Bay Program, they have only recently begun to get the attention they deserve. In part, this was because so much attention first went into funding nutrient and toxic reductions from sewage treatment plants. More recently, everyone’s attention has been focused on animal agriculture issues, including nutrient management laws and regulations, and finding alternative uses for the excess manure being generated in many Chesapeake region counties. But with the announcement of the EPA’s nationwide strategy for intensive animal agriculture, and with the consideration and enactment of new laws and regulations in the Bay Agreement states for both agriculture and funding treatment plants, the door is opening on a third important source of our water quality problems, namely stormwater.
It is important to recognize that both treatment plants and agriculture play important roles in handling stormwater. While many solutions draw upon experience and capacities in these areas, stormwater control efforts are primarily focused on urban areas. This is because the problems are exacerbated by the concentrations of pollutants and impervious surfaces — roofs, parking lots, highways, etc. When it rains in these areas, both volumes and concentrations create problems. There is considerable consensus among the scientific community that a watershed with more than 15 percent of its area in impermeable surfaces cannot carry out a range of natural functions, and its streams are in danger of serving as little more than stormwater conveyances.
Fortunately, the science of understanding these forces and the technology for how to deal with them are making progress. Until a few years ago, efforts were overwhelmingly directed at controlling and conveying the water — get it into pipes or concrete channels and get it out of the community fast. The idea was to design systems to handle hydrologic overload, not to prevent the overload from occurring.
As we have become more urbanized and more cognizant of the downstream damage of these efforts, we have shifted our efforts to finding ways of preventing the overload. We need to find more systems that function like forests — trapping and absorbing the pollutants before they reach the streams. There is a great deal of effort under way to develop and test such systems.
One of the challenges of stormwater is that each set of natural and development conditions is different, so an almost unique set of solutions must be designed for each community.
Recently, the Bay Program’s Federal Agencies Committee sponsored a Blue Ribbon Panel to examine issues of stormwater on the Anacostia River in Maryland and the District of Columbia. They brought in experts from throughout the nation and Canada, who helped to identify creative solutions — storage, natural absorption, rain gardens, etc. — that might work in the Anacostia.
Some of the conclusions were real eye-openers for the participants. For example, areas with combined storm and sanitary sewers must be approached differently from areas with separate sewer systems. Where the systems are combined, the focus should be on keeping the stormwater out as much as possible and treating it when the plants have the capacity available. With separate systems, the need is to hold and treat that first flush, but then let the rest run through the system that was designed to handle and discharge it. Another popular and cost-effective solution is a voluntary program for homeowners to disconnect roof downspouts from the sewer system and to use the water on the land where feasible.
Stormwater is covered by the Clean Water Act, but it has been pretty much ignored by the regulators until recently. That is about to change, because the EPA is planning to finalize the so-called “Phase 2 Regulations” during 1999. These will require state plans for handling stormwater through a system of permits and general permits. (Under a general permit, no permit is required if a set of conditions is met and certified.) While the precise form this will take is still under development and review, it certainly makes sense to continue seeking ways to make the natural systems work for us, and to learn some “concrete lessons” from the past.
The next few years will be extremely confusing in the regulatory realm with these new regulations, the recently invigorated process to develop Total Maximum Daily Loads for all stream reaches with impairments, and the ongoing effort to develop new criteria and standards for nutrients and other pollutants.
One thing is clear. We can get further faster working together on stormwater, pushing the science, trying new technologies, taking some risks. If we wait until the regulatory regime finally gets sorted out, we will lose years of effort and possibly end up with less flexibility.
Like so many other things in the Chesapeake, if we work together now to get results, we can get out ahead of the pack. And, when the regulators catch up, it will be pretty painless if we’ve done our job well.