Emerging stormwater control techniques have the potential to sharply reduce the cost of controlling stormwater runoff from the region's developed landscapes, a new report suggests.
Few issues have caused more heartburn among local government officials than the billions-of-dollars projected price tag for curbing stormwater runoff to meet Bay cleanup goals.
But those projections often rely on implementing traditional stormwater controls. A new study conducted for the James River Association by the Center for Watershed Protection, a nonprofit group that researches stormwater controls, found that by taking advantage of low-cost options, those costs can be dramatically reduced.
"It has shown that there are some strong opportunities to reduce the overall costs of meeting these goals," said Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association. "Meeting the goals will certainly not be easy; it will still be a challenge, but there are tools available to do it in a cost-effective and manageable way."
The report found that the average annual cost of removing a pound of pollution from stormwater ranged from 44 cents to more than $700. Reducing pollution by planting forest buffers, improving water infiltration in certain settings, or by transforming some existing stormwater controls into wetlands can cost far less than such things as the construction of new dry detention ponds.
In addition, new cost-effective practices are on the horizon. To get nutrient and sediment reduction credits for stormwater controls, best management practices need to be approved by the state-federal Bay Program. The Bay Program convenes a panel of experts to review available information about each BMP to determine how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment it will likely control.
In the wake of projected high cleanup costs, many new BMPs have been proposed and are working through the review system. Several, such as eliminating illicit discharges that drain into stormwater systems and initiating programs to pick up pet wastes, are particularly low cost, the report said.
Using the city of Richmond as a case study, the report found that implementing the most cost-effective BMPs that have already been approved by the Bay Program could reduce its cost of meeting Chesapeake cleanup goals — estimated at tens of millions of dollars — by as much as 75 percent. If proposed new BMPs are approved, the cost could drop even more.
"This type of information is exactly what was thought of when they set up the BMP review framework — that new and innovative information can help localities do things more cost-effectively than was envisioned at the beginning of the process," said Adrienne Kotula, a policy specialist with the association. "So hopefully, localities will have the flexibility to use it."
The report also emphasized the need for the continued re-evaluation of BMP effectiveness as more information becomes available.
New information about the potential of stream restoration to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution, for instance, has transformed that activity from one of the most costly to one of the most cost-effective strategies.
The lowest cost practices can't fully achieve nutrient reduction goals, the report acknowledged. There is, after all, only so much pet waste that can be picked up.
On the other hand, municipalities may need to prioritize some of the lowest cost options, such as eliminating illicit discharges, for other reasons, such as protecting human health. Illicit discharges are unknown or illegal connections into stormwater systems that release sewage or other wastes. Recent studies suggest they can be major — and typically undocumented — sources of nutrients in some areas, especially those with old stormwater systems such as Richmond.
The report noted that localities can take other actions that reduce stormwater control costs.
Many stormwater BMPs, including some low-cost ones, require land to put them on. The availability of land may limit the extent to which some practices can be implemented, or increase costs if land has to be acquired.
The report suggested that localities inventory their communities to identify available land where the implementation of low-cost BMPs is feasible.
In addition, localities can provide incentives, such as reduced stormwater fees, to businesses and homeowners that encourage them to incorporate new stormwater controls on their property.
The incentives often costs less than if the full cost of those reductions are borne by the municipality.
It also said more work is needed to quantify the full range of benefits provided by stormwater controls so municipalities understand their full value. For instance, forest buffers along streams can enhance the appearance of neighborhoods and provide wildlife habitat.
"We were really focused on the cost per pound of pollution reductions for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment," Street said. "But there are a lot of factors in selecting which practice really makes the most sense, and certainly there are a lot of other benefits that can be derived from tree planting and other greening approaches that enhance the community."
The full report, "Cost-Effective Stormwater Management to Meet Local Water Qualiy Goals in the James River Watershed," is available on the association's website, www.jamesriverassociation.org.