After the jobs return and the banks resume lending, one casualty of the unprecedented growth in the housing market and its inevitable crash is likely to remain.
In 2008, the National Research Council concluded that rapid development was dramatically changing stormwater flows nationwide. The council recommended several actions, including reducing the amount of impervious surfaces and requiring cities to add features that hold and treat rain.
Now the U.S. EPA is using that report as a basis of its push to strengthen stormwater regulations.
Currently, the agency doesn't directly regulate discharge from new development and redevelopment; instead, Phase I municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) and Phase II MS4s are required to do so in their stormwater management plans. Monitoring and enforcing the level of pollutants in discharge is left up to the individual community, making the process inconsistent.
At the same time, some — but not all — states require MS4s to retrofit sewer systems, drainage areas, or individual structures with better control measures. As a result, EPA is considering extending the requirement to all MS4s.
“We're trying to get a handle on how big the problem is,” explains Greg Schaner, attorney advisor with the agency's water permits division. “EPA's aware that people have different ideas when they hear ‘retrofit,' but we also know these are not inexpensive fixes.”
The agency also may develop a single set of requirements for Phase I and Phase II permits, both of which already address nearly identical issues.
Although both types require a stormwater management program, only Phase II permittees must include six minimum control measures including public education and outreach, illicit discharge detection and elimination, and construction site runoff control.
“From an environmental standpoint, these are the same types of surfaces that they're discharging from,” Schaner adds. “So besides the economy of scale, shouldn't we have similar permit requirements?”
That's something that the agency hoped to answer as it held public meetings in five cities in January: Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.
“Does it make sense to have one set of requirements for all communities? It was a very different setup in the late 1980s, when the requirements for these Phase I communities were new,” says Holly Galavotti, environmental protection specialist with the agency's water permits division.
The agency also is considering expanding the area subject to federal stormwater regulations. Though 400 urban areas consume 2% of the nation's land mass, they contain 63% of its population. As suburbs spread into unincorporated areas and formerly rural land, the present regulations are losing their effectiveness. Increasingly, development is occurring outside currently regulated MS4s and may not be subject to federal water quality controls.
For 10 years the 50,000 residents of Grapevine, Texas, have contributed $4/household each month to the city's stormwater utility to support creek improvements and erosion control. Commercial property owners pay based on a formula that calculates the amount of impervious surface.
But not every city has a stormwater utility, says Matt Singleton, director of public works in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb.
“Those TMDL (total maximum daily load) limits have always been a concern because communities have only marginal ability to regulate private property, which you'd have to have complete control over to meet the end-of-pipe limits,” he says. “So once the EPA sets certain standards that are desirable for water quality, how will communities pay for it?”
The agency plans to take final action no later than November 2012.