There's not a blade of grass to be found in Erik Hagen's yard. In fact, yard may not even be the right term for his Takoma Park lot - it's more like a giant sponge.
The thick layer of mulch that overlies rich topsoil can absorb just about any deluge delivered from the clouds above.
Hagen demonstrated this to a group of visitors last year by turning on a hose in front of his house and letting the water gush for a quarter of an hour while he gave a tour of his property.
"The water just soaked in and it didn't look like it left much of a wet spot at all," he said. "On a grass lawn, the water would have just run off."
In another instance, a particularly severe storm dumped more than half a foot of water: "It was more water than the rain gauge would hold," Hagen said. "I had to go out during the storm to empty it."
As he did so, he took a moment to observe what has happening around the yard. The sponge, it seemed, was easily absorbing the torrential rainfall. "There was very little runoff from the property," Hagen said, "just from the gravel driveway."
Hagen's efforts to hold the line on runoff may seem extreme, but it's the type of action the EPA's Bay Program Office is looking to promote as part of a new "no runoff challenge."
Traditional stormwater programs increasingly promote techniques that seek to promote the infiltration of rainwater to reduce surface runoff, such as low-impact development and better site design.
Instead of merely reducing runoff, the new effort seeks to prevent it altogether. "It's the ultimate stretch goal," acknowledged Jeff Lape, director of the EPA's Bay Program. "Let's see how far we can go."
That's a daunting task. The amount of hard surfaces that generate runoff-parking lots, roofs and roads-has increased rapidly. During the 1990s, the population of the Bay watershed grew 8 percent, but the amount of impervious surfaces increased by 41 percent.
As a result, while pollution to the Chesapeake from other sources is thought to be decreasing, pollution from the urban and suburban areas associated with those new roads and buildings is increasing. The Bay Program estimates that developed lands contribute 12 percent of the nitrogen, 17 percent of the phosphorus and 10 percent of the sediment reaching the Chesapeake.
Last year, the EPA Office of Inspector General warned that new development was increasing pollution to the Bay at a faster rate than new stormwater measures and programs could control it. To help hold the line, it called for the Bay Program Office to devise a set of runoff control practices that would result in a "no net increase" of nutrient and sediment pollution from new development and to promote them to municipalities within the watershed, which are responsible for regulating stormwater.
But when reviewing runoff practices associated with low-impact development or environmental site design programs, they found few performance standards that measured their effectiveness. As a result, it was difficult to design a program that would ensure a no net increase from new development.
Instead, the Bay Program Office proposed going a step further-preventing runoff altogether. Instead of a no net increase, the goal is to achieve a net decrease in the amount of runoff within the local watershed.
Because of its lofty ambition, they call it an "aspirational" goal.
"With an aspirational goal, we want to shift the debate to how good can stormwater controls be, not what incremental improvement might be achieved by adding another stormwater insert into a parking lot," said Mike Fritz, of the Bay Program Office. "One of the functions of the aspirational goal is to push it as far as you can possibly go with this."
Traditional regulations seek, at best, to maintain pre-development conditions. What Bay Program officials are trying to find is examples of businesses or individuals-like Erik Hagen-who go beyond what's required to achieve no runoff from either new or existing developments. They want to document what was accomplished, what it cost and promote it to others in the hope that such techniques will become more widely adopted. The efforts could involve new control techniques or, as in Hagen's case, an imaginative combination of existing controls.
"We think the practices are already there. It's how they are used, and how they are applied," said Reggie Parrish, of the Bay Program Office. "What we didn't see out there is the driver necessarily to push folks to that level of what the Bay needs."
As an incentive, when the Bay Program recently announced $12.9 million for innovative implementation grants, it specifically sought, among other things, proposals that would promote no runoff development.
That said, being an aspirational goal, the no runoff objective does not have a firm definition. The ability to eliminate runoff may vary from site to site. At one location, it may be feasible to absorb an inch of rain, while several inches can be absorbed at others.
"We realize that on a site-by-site basis, it is going to vary as to how far someone gets," Lape said. "We just simply want to see how far folks can get, get them trying and celebrate how far they get."
A huge amount of the watershed, and the nation, is expected to be built or redeveloped in the next two decades. A 2004 paper from the Brookings Institute predicted that by 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work and shop will have been built, or rebuilt since 2000.
If correct, Lape said that projection offers great potential to mitigate the impacts from not only new, but also existing areas when they are redeveloped-if more effective control strategies are identified. But he said, "it's a race against time. We're racing to get the ideas, and examples, in front of folks."
The concept has stirred some concern, especially among engineers designing stormwater controls. Most states in the region have overhauled their stormwater regulations in recent years to promote the infiltration of water, rather than traditional stormwater ponds which collect runoff, then meter it out to nearby streams.
"There is a lot of pushback in the engineering community in dealing with these nontraditional practices. So they are really sensitive to folks from the Bay Program saying, 'Oh we should be doing even more than that,'" said one stormwater official.
Bay Program officials stress their challenge is voluntary, not regulatory. "Legitimately, some of our partners are very concerned that we are trying to upend their regulatory programs," Lape said. "We're not."
Some have questioned whether "no runoff" should be a goal, noting that it's unnatural. After all, runoff happens. Even forests leak some water when it rains.
In forests, though, the majority of rain either evaporates back into the atmosphere or seeps into the groundwater. A relatively small portion flows over the surface into a stream. In developed landscapes, most water is shunted off the land as quickly as possible, and the majority of the rainfall typically ends up in local waterways. About 16 times as much water runs off a 1-acre parking lot than a 1-acre meadow.
Because most of the water now comes from surface water rather than groundwater, stream hydrology is greatly altered. Water levels rapidly swell immediately after a rain, then drop to unnaturally low levels because of the lack of groundwater. Those wild swings erode stream channels and are devastating for aquatic life.
Eliminating runoff at one site, Lape said, would help to offset the excess rainfall still flowing off other lots. "If no runoff is our problem, we'll take it," he said. "That's not the issue. The issue is we have far too much." Eventually, the hope is to eliminate runoff at enough sites to help restore natural stream hydrology.
In some neighborhoods, development's impact on stream flows can be dramatic. Hagen lives in the Sligo Creek watershed, a tributary of the Anacostia River. A third of the creek's watershed is covered with impervious surfaces such as roads or roofs, which quickly collect rainfall, shunt it into stormwater drains, and then into streams.
"When you stand there during a rain, you can just watch the level of the stream come up," said Clair Garman, Hagen's neighbor, who maintains the website for a local group, the Friends of Sligo Creek.
The group promotes the use of rain barrels-which Garman has placed on all of his downspouts-and alternative landscaping to reduce runoff. Many of the lots on the street where Garman and Hagen live are notable for their lack of grass lawns.
"Grass is a weed," Garman noted. "If we see grass, we pull it up by the root."
"Some of that is self defense-so it doesn't run into our kitchen," added his wife, Michelle.
None of the efforts go so far as Hagen's though.
Hagen didn't explicitly set out to eliminate runoff from his yard, but as a former hydrologist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, he was sensitive to the impact of stormwater on streams. Over time, he kept adding more devices to control rainfall.
In Hagen's yard, runoff control begins with the soil. Over the years, he has built up a thick layer of mulch, which has helped to transform the hard clay layer underneath the old lawn into rich, dark topsoil. "You can turn your lawn into a mulched garden and an incredible amount of water soaks in," he said.
Hagen estimated that nearly a third of the lot is covered by the house. Most rain that hits the roof is directed into rain barrels. But 50-gallon rain barrels are not able to hold all of the water during heavy rains. "You're talking about thousands of gallons during a rainstorm," he said.
In the front yard, the excess is directed into a rain garden. Even during the heaviest storms in the nine years he has lived at the house, Hagen said water has not seeped from the rain garden. At the other rain barrels, the excess is piped into the ground where perforated pipes allow it to absorb into the soil.
When he put a small addition on the back of his house, Hagen topped it with a green roof which, he said, can absorb about the first half inch of rain during a storm.
The yard has become part of home and garden tours in the city, giving visitors a chance to learn about ways to reduce runoff. "People are really into it," he said. "So I think there is interest."
Anyone with an example of control that approach or achieve "no runoff" can call 410-267-5700 or contact Mike Fritz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-267-5721, or contact Reggie Parrish at email@example.com or 410-267-5772.
Impacts Of Runoff
Instead of having most of water seep into the stream through groundwater, rainfall collected on hard surfaces is typically rushed into local streams at high velocities in unnaturally high volumes that rip up stream banks.
Along the way, they pick up a stew of pollutants, from animal droppings to pesticides, from chemicals leaked from cars to air pollutants falling from the sky.
The degradation takes a toll on many species. Brook trout begin to disappear when as little as 2 percent of a watershed is developed.
According to the Bay Program, more than 1,570 miles of streams and 44 square miles of estuarine waters in the region don't meet local water quality standards because of urban runoff.
Stormwater impacts are felt throughout the country. Some examples cited in a recent report from the National Research Council include:
- The harvesting of shellfish is prohibited, restricted or conditional in nearly 40 percent of all shellfish beds nationwide because of high bacterial levels. Urban runoff and failing septic systems are cited as the prime causes.
- In 2006, more than 15,000 beach closings or swimming advisories were issued because of bacterial levels that exceeded health and safety standards, with polluted runoff and stormwater cited as the cause 40 percent of the time.
- Pesticides were detected in 97 percent of urban stream water samples across the United States and exceeded human health benchmarks 6.7 percent of the time and aquatic life benchmarks 83 percent of the time, according to a 2006 U.S. Geological Survey report. In 94 percent of fish tissues sampled in urban areas nationwide, organochlorine compounds from pesticides were detected.
- Urban development was responsible for almost 39 percent of freshwater wetland loss nationally between 1998 and 2004, and the direct impact of stormwater runoff in degrading wetland quality affects an even greater acreage.
- Increased flooding is common throughout urban and suburban areas, sometimes as a consequence of improperly sited development, but more commonly as a result of increasing discharges over time from urbanization farther upstream.
- Stormwater discharges from urban areas to marine and estuarine waters cause greater water column toxicity than similar discharges from less urban areas.
- A variety of studies have shown that stormwater runoff is a vector of pathogens with potential human health implications in both freshwater and marine waters.