May 19, 2014 11:41

Stormwater News

Legislature Votes to Loosen Rules

A bill to rewrite the rules for how local governments deal with stormwater runoff has passed the Alabama state legislature. The bill would limit stormwater control programs to “only those…aspects that are absolutely required in the Clean Water Act.” This would allow cities and counties to ignore federal guidance on stormwater management that isn’t written into law.

Currently, the federal government requires cities to take action in controlling runoff. Requirements can include submitting stormwater plans and keeping construction sites from polluting the stormwater system. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Cam Ward, sees those regulations as an unfunded mandate that forces cities to spend thousands every time regulators tweak the rules.

Environmentalists say the bill could cripple the efforts of cities that are doing their best to regulate stormwater. It could open up cities to lawsuits from businesses who say they are being over-regulated. Those cities could still potentially be held accountable by federal regulators for not complying with federal guidance.

Grants for Watershed Restoration

The William Penn Foundation has awarded a $1.2 million grant to Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities. The grant is to provide assistance and oversight to dozens of restoration projects in watersheds in the Philadelphia region, and to protect critical sources of drinking water for 15 million people. The complex Upstream Suburban Philadelphia Cluster of watersheds will be the main focus of the Center’s efforts.

According to the director of the Center for Sustainable Communities, Jeffrey Featherstone, “Nearly all stream segments in these watersheds have been designated as impaired by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection—primarily due to stormwater runoff. The idea is to start at the headwaters and work our way downstream toward Philadelphia.” Proposed projects include creating filtration systems, restoring buffers, restoring stream channels, and upgrading stormwater management facilities.

Superstorm Sandy Inspires Design Competition

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development unveiled 10 finalists in a design competition aimed at bringing more resilient infrastructure to areas affected by Superstorm Sandy. The initiative is a product of President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, though it is funded through private entities.

A project dubbed the ‘Big U,’ for example, would radically alter Manhattan by creating a series of stormwater barriers ringing the southern half of the island. The barriers would double as park-like public spaces. Another proposal, which is more tightly focused on fixing specific weaknesses along the city’s shoreline, would situate a “necklace of breakwaters” off the shore of vulnerable Staten Island.

The winning proposals will be eligible for HUD’s Community Development Block Grants. Winners may also receive other private and public sector funding.

“Rain tax” to Pay for Upgrading Aging Stormwater Infrastructure

The City of Gainesville, Georgia, is considering implementing a “rain tax” on its residents and businesses in order to pay for upgrades and replacements to aging stormwater infrastructure. In recent years, the aging infrastructure, which can be up to 100 years old in some places, has contributed to flooding and sinkholes that have closed streets and cost millions of dollars countywide.

If established, the “rain tax” rates would be calculated based on the amount of impervious surface on a property. Similar fees in neighboring areas range from $1.25 to $6.25 per month for residential properties, but can be considerably higher for commercial properties. Exact rates for the Gainesville program are currently unknown.

City council members unanimously agreed to take action to address the problem before something catastrophic occurs, but are expecting pushback from the public. However, according to Councilwoman Ruth Bruner, if current infrastructure fails, costs could easily multiply.

Stormwater Study at University

Students at California State University, Sacramento, are working to find ways to clean stormwater in local waterways. The students are learning about stormwater through collecting samples in bins and testing it to see what combination of things—like sand, clay and gravel—will best help to clean the stormwater.

A majority of the area’s drinking water comes from lakes and rivers that are being contaminated by debris from stormwater. The contamination comes from stormwater picking up debris as it travels. Without any filtration, the pollutants end up concentrated in local lakes and rivers.

The students think a combination of filtration layers would treat the water better than what is currently used. They also hope their research will help to alleviate droughts in the future by slowly adding to the groundwater supply.

Innovative Solution to Stormwater Challenge

The EPA released a report which found that green infrastructure is a cost-effective way to control stormwater, while providing economic benefits. Using Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a case study, they tried to measure its benefits for controlling stormwater pollution.

Green infrastructure uses vegetation and soil to manage rainwater where it falls. By weaving natural processes into the built environment, it provides stormwater management, flood mitigation and air quality control. The report estimated that Lancaster’s system would reduce wastewater pumping and treatment costs by $661,000 per year. It will also provide around $2.8 million in energy, air quality, and climate-related benefits annually. These benefits surpass the costs of implementing green infrastructure.

Budget Agreement Reached

Maryland House and Senate negotiators have worked out an agreement in the $38.7 billion budget that eliminates an alternative to stormwater remediation fees or “rain taxes.” The amendment would have allowed all of the 10 jurisdictions that currently have rain taxes to instead siphon off a percentage of their property taxes to fund stormwater remediation programs. At the moment, only two counties, Carroll and Fredrick, are allowed to use county property taxes to fund their stormwater programs.

The current rain tax was passed at the end of 2012 and has proved to be quite controversial. Its primary purpose, along with the now defunct amendment, is to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

County Proposes Fee for Stormwater Programs

Marion County, Oregon, has proposed a fee of between $5 and $7 per month that would be used to create and maintain stormwater programs. Such programs would focus on building stormwater related infrastructure.

The fee would be per residence/ business located in specific areas of the county, and would likely be an ongoing, permanent charge. The benefits of the fee would extend across the county, while only specific areas of the county would be charged.

Colleges Assess Stormwater Plan

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded $4 million to four colleges to study Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s stormwater plan. Temple University, Swarthmore College, Villanova University, and the University of Pennsylvania will each get $1 million to assess various projects and aspects of the plan.

Approved two-and-a-half years ago, Philadelphia’s 20-year project aims to stem the polluted water gushing from sewer overflows during heavy rains by incorporating “green” projects throughout the city. These developments range from vegetated roofs and rain gardens that soak up rainwater, to porous pavements that let the water permeate through. In the 30 months since the plan was approved, hundreds of projects have been completed, putting the water department ahead of schedule.

Marc Cammarata, director of the Philadelphia Water Department’s Office of Watersheds, called the grants “very positive. It’s not very often that this substantial an amount of money gets directed toward one city, one effort, like this.”

Development Project Moves Forward

The town of Bluffton, Georgia, is on track to approve a 66-acre development for a shopping center. The project was approved despite concerns about the development plan being over the recommended limit of 10% paved and other impermeable surfaces. The plans currently show the site to be 14.4% impermeable surfaces.

County stormwater manager Eric Larson said that despite the project being over the recommended limit, it would still meet the county’s stormwater requirements. This is because it will employ devices that will minimize runoff, such as rain gardens, retention and detention ponds, and pavement that traps runoff for reuse. Some, however, still have concerns about the project. Councilman Tabor Vaux said the 10% limit is based on numerous studies and should be a hard rule. He also expressed worry that allowing the exception could set a bad precedent.

New Method to Determine Fees

A new method to determine the amount property owners pay in stormwater utility fees is being considered in San Antonio, Texas. Currently, the fees are based on land use and property size and are applied to the maintenance of the city’s stormwater sewer system.

Assistant director of the Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, Anthony Chukwudolue, said, “The person with the smaller parcel and with a small impervious cover may probably see their fee go down from where it is today.” Owners of larger pieces of property could see their fees go up significantly.

Stormwater utility fees have been raised six times since they were established in 1993, with the latest increase in 2008. Officials believe if the new fee structure is implemented, it will encourage the use of low-impact development features on new property, and would improve water quality and quantity.

Housing Development Delayed

Plans for a new housing development in Millcreek Township, Pennsylvania, are on hold amid concerns that stormwater runoff may damage nearby farmland. The Millcreek Supervisors say they are concerned about the potential for excessive stormwater runoff onto the property of crop farmer Sidney Nolt.

While a majority of the development would be in adjacent Richland Borough, the stormwater would drain into Millcreek Township. The plan calls for an “implied easement” to allow the stormwater to run across Nolt’s farmland, but officials are split on whether it should require Nolt’s consent.

Technically, the implied easement shouldn’t require Nolt’s consent, but some officials are worried they could be liable if stormwater from heavy rains damages the farmland.

EPA Backs Down On Federal Stormwater Regulations

The EPA announced in mid- March that it would not pursue national regulations mandating stormwater management practices at newly developed and re-developed construction sites. The announcement indicates that the EPA may re-evaluate broad regulatory programs for controlling stormwater in favor of more tailored and technical regulatory approaches.

The EPA currently only regulates stormwater discharge associated with construction activity and certain industrial activities. However, since 2010 it has been engaged in a regulatory effort to change that to include post-construction stormwater discharge. The EPA acknowledged that it had encountered problems assessing the costs and benefits of the program.

The agency indicated that it intended to pursue other approaches, instead of regulations. Such approaches could include incentives and technical assistance to municipalities operating municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4), adding provisions to municipal MS4 permits, and promoting the use of green infrastructure.

This decision represents a rare instance when an agency moves away from a “command and control” program and towards a more flexible approach.

Stormwater Project Handles Two Problems

Residents in a neighborhood in Haines City, Florida have been complaining for years about flooding and erosion around their streets. So, when school is out, in early June, for summer vacation, a $907,000 project will begin to correct it. City officials hope the project will be completed by the time school opens (mid August) for the 2014-2015 school year.

The residents near Lake Eva have previously complained about the drainage problem that is causing erosion of their land and has forced some residents to build a “moat” to keep stormwater off their property.

What’s changed is now city officials are worried about the risky sharing of State Road 544 between industrial semi-trucks and children being driven to school. The proposed project will complete an alternate route for families to commute on, while also building infrastructure to fix the flooding problem.

It’s a lucky break that the city’s layout would put it in a proverbial “two birds with one stone” situation, said City Manager Jonathan Evans. “We’re handling public safety concerns with folks going to school as well as addressing some of the drainage issues in the area.” By completing the project together,” Evans said, “the taxpayers will save nearly $150,000.”

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In many ways, we are fortunate that, in our chosen profession, we are able to help people when certain disasters occur: the tornadoes in Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Georgia, the flooding in Louisiana, the snows in the northeastern part of the country, the rain in California, and the snow in Colorado....

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