Spring — and Stormwater Runoff — Has Sprung

Why Stormwater Runoff is a Serious Concern for Everyone

snow flowersAfter a long, hard winter, spring is finally in the air. The record-breaking piles of snow are slowly melting, and soon the flowers will be blooming. But while we are all enjoying the balmier days, we also have to worry about a serious environmental concern: stormwater runoff.

Stormwater starts as precipitation – snow, sleet, and rain. When this precipitation lands on natural ground cover such as forests, grass, or gardens, it soaks into the ground and is filtered by layers of dirt and rock. This clean, filtered water finds its way to our groundwater and drinking water supply. The problem manifests when stormwater does not land on forests or gardens but instead washes off parking lots, roads, driveways, rooftops, and other hard surfaces, also known as impervious cover. Stormwater that picks up pollution, such as chemicals, oil, road salt, bacteria, sediment, sewage, and trash, then washes these pollutants into ditches and storm drains — and in turn into streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes — is referred to as stormwater runoff. And this spring we should expect an inordinate amount of stormwater runoff resulting from this past winter’s record snowfall.

Fishing_clean_waterThe United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has instituted stormwater regulations under its Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act aims to protect our nation’s water so that it is clean, drinkable, fishable, swimmable, and healthy. Three specific contaminants of concern are bacteria, phosphorus, and nitrogen, and they must be kept out of the water. Unfortunately, many of our nation’s rivers, streams, and lakes are already widely contaminated by these three pollutants.

In Southern New England, tidal and coastal waters that feed the Narragansett Bay, Long Island Sound, and Buzzards Bay are impaired by nitrogen and bacteria. These pathogens cause a host of problems including low-oxygen dead zones, damage to coastal marshes, beach closures due to bacterial pollution, and toxic algae blooms. The problem has become so severe that local environmental advocacy groups Save the Sound and Save the Bay put the EPA on notice by submitting comments to EPA’s Massachusetts General Permit for Discharge of Stormwater from Small Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) this past February.

narragansett bay sewage discharge“Stopping stormwater pollution upstream is a vital step to protecting downstream waters like Long Island Sound,” said Roger Reynolds, legal director of Save the Sound. “The sound’s water quality is at serious risk from stormwater runoff each time it rains, with pollutants like bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorous pouring off paved surfaces, through storm sewers, and ultimately into our bays and harbors. This pollution violates the federal Clean Water Act, and we need the leadership of EPA and the cooperation of every state in the sound’s watershed to solve it.”

Also in February, Save the Sound and seven other environmental organizations filed a petition with the EPA to increase its nitrogen reduction plan for waters feeding Long Island Sound, which include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. The petition also calls for the EPA to immediately require nitrogen reduction from urban stormwater as well as out-of-date sewer pipes and septic systems. Similarly in February, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) filed a notice of intent to sue the EPA for its failure in both upholding the Clean Water Act and in requiring large, privately-owned companies to obtain permits for their polluted stormwater discharge – mostly caused by impervious cover.

Natural vs. Impervious Cover
Natural vs. Impervious Cover

In Maine, the Portland City Council unanimously voted this past January to charge property owners a stormwater fee, which is dependent on the size of their rooftops and driveways/parking lots. The fee, which goes into effect January of 2016, would cost the average homeowner roughly $4.50 per month but would have a much larger impact on businesses like L.L.Bean, who would incur a monthly fee of $9,882. And Portland is not alone. Northampton, Newton, Reading, and Chicopee, Massachusetts as well as South Burlington, Vermont have also implemented a similar fee.

Algae Bloom Eutrophication
Algae Bloom Eutrophication

And New England isn’t the only area of the country with problems. In Ohio and Michigan, Lake Erie continues to be heavily contaminated after several decades. Lake Erie gained notoriety after the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, and the Lake is credited as being the inspiration for both the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1974 as well as the creation of Earth Day. And while Lake Erie’s contamination was largely cleaned up in the 1990’s, it encountered even more serious problems in the new millennium. Algal blooms reappeared in the lake, and with this eutrophication came oxygen deprived dead zones, foul smells, and water too toxic to drink. Then in 2011, Lake Erie’s algal blooms hit a new record by growing to 5,000 square kilometers — or three times the previous record. The massive algal bloom hit yet again in 2014, compelling weather.com to rank Water Quality Issues as third on its Top Ten Environmental Health Stories of 2014.

eutrophicationClearly, stormwater runoff directly causes a myriad of environmental issues. So how can we handle this serious problem? The fact is that there is no simple or quick solution. Addressing stormwater runoff will require a multi-faceted best practice approach that will involve every facet of the nation’s population. Reducing soil erosion, cleaning up pet waste, maintaining healthy septic systems, replacing deicers, improving agricultural practices, implementing cleaner automotive operations, instituting low impact design methodology, and increasing stormwater funding are just a few of the ways that we can begin to solve the problem. In the end, there is no natural resource more precious than water, and we must do everything in our power to protect it.