We all know the history of Bay restoration, words that sound good on paper but have rarely been implemented as well as a lack of specific requirements, monitoring and accountability.
With great fanfare, the EPA recently announced a new draft permit intended to manage polluted runoff in the nation's capital. The new municipal stormwater (MS4) permit is also being presented as the model for other such permits around the watershed.
From a water quality perspective, almost nothing (except improvements in the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant) could be more important in the District of Columbia.
First, a little background. We all know that unlike "good, old-fashioned" pollution caused by industrial bad guys, the Bay and its rivers are beset today by pollution from more diverse sources, traceable back...to us.
Farm runoff produces the largest segment of the problem, but it has shown improvement over the last decade. Air pollution, another significant source, has gotten better too. Sewage treatment plants are a third source, and they are also making progress toward their pollution reduction goals.
The only source not making progress-and indeed, according to the Chesapeake Bay Program, going in the opposite direction-is stormwater runoff from new and existing urban and suburban areas. Stormwater is the problem that this new MS4 permit is supposed to resolve.
The District's 414 storm sewer outfalls regularly discharge untreated rainwater carrying pollutants directly into the city's streams and rivers. Both the Anacostia and Potomac rivers have fish consumption advisories, and citizens are advised against swimming. There has been little progress overcoming the runoff problems plaguing the region's waterways, despite years of earlier MS4 permits and some streams and rivers have been on "pollution budgets" for a decade.
There are some positive aspects to the draft permit. It sets respectable stormwater management standards for private developers and the federal government; prescribes the planting of several thousand trees annually and the creation of vegetated roofs on public buildings; requires "fixes" with new stormwater controls where runoff problems already exist; and requires the District to mitigate runoff problems where these standards cannot be met by private and public developers.
But the devil is in the details-in this case, what the permit does not say.
First, it doesn't say that this pollution must be reduced to the "maximum extent practicable." Those critically important words, which come directly from the federal Clean Water Act, must be the level of expectation.
Second, the permit does not spell out the minimum set of detailed measures, together with deadlines and benchmarks for accomplishing them. It leaves far too much to future invention by the District (and often without public input). In fact, under the draft permit retrofits to reduce pollution wouldn't have to be completed for 85 years. That is not acceptable.
Third, there is no requirement for compliance with the District's water quality standards, and the integration of official pollution budgets is unclear.
Finally, many of the requirements that do appear are incomplete, underwhelming or too vaguely articulated to provide adequate guidance for implementation.
As written, the draft permit is ineffective, incomplete and not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. The EPA must go back to the drawing board and develop a strong permit, with specific deliverables, comprehensive monitoring and consequences for failure.