Polluted stormwater is one of the toughest challenges facing freshwater quality. It’s basically the dirty runoff from streets, parking lots, and rooftops that contains garbage, asphalt sealants, motor fuels, and other chemicals after a heavy rain. The polluted stormwater often finds its way into rivers and lakes without any treatment. Over twenty years ago, Congress directed the EPA to address the problem through an amendment to the Clean Water Act. However, according to a new report from the National Research Council, the EPA has taken a failed approach and needs an entirely new strategy. A summary of the report is available online for free and the full report can be ordered from the National Academies Press.
The report recommends that EPA adopt a watershed-based permitting system that would encompass both stormwater and wastewater discharges that impact the drainage basin. According to the report, responsibility and authority for this new watershed-based permitting approach should be centralized with a lead municipality that would work in partnership with other municipalities. The lead municipality would then receive enhanced funding to compensate for its increased responsibilities. Additional recommendations include planning and regulation of land use to reduce impermeable surfaces, a shift in focus from chemical pollutants to the increased volume of water (concentrated bursts of high water discharges increases streambank erosion and accompanying sediment pollution of surface water), and conserving natural riparian areas.
I was very impressed with the report’s findings and recommendations. The report doesn’t shy away from calling out the EPA’s tremendous failure in addressing this problem (this is especially notable since EPA asked the National Research Council for its assessment). More importantly, the recommended solutions would work. Watershed-based planning and permitting has always been an ideal, but since political and local government boundaries can’t be avoided, putting responsibility with a lead municipality in the watershed is a pragmatic solution. Further, the report recognizes that this responsibility can only be met with funding for the lead municipality. And the additional recommendations would update the regulatory program with our improved knowledge of stormwater problems. If the next EPA administration is really committed to improving the health of our waterbodies, the report’s recommendations should be at the top of their to-do list.