Lake County, Ill., authorities knew what they had to get done: take care of the county's multiple streams, lakes, wetlands, and floodplains. Since nearly 20% of the county is made up of these water resources, groundwater and stormwater management has always been stringent.

Long before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Phase II of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) went into affect on March 10, 2003, Lake County was doing its part to keeps its waters clean. In 1987, following two presidential declared flood disasters, state legislation enabled Lake County officials to create the Stormwater Management Commission (SMC).

“We are essentially a cooperative working group,” says Scott Paszkiewicz, watershed planner with the Lake County SMC. The SMC provides support services to 60 communities in the far northeast portion of Illinois. A committee meets monthly to discuss community and county activities. On an annual basis, it sets goals and objectives, and hires a consultant to put together an annual report, detailing the progress SMC has made on meeting the NPDES six minimum control measures. Each community is then responsible for adding its activities and submitting individual reports to the state EPA.

Unlike a municipality that holds a permit, the SMC is strictly a facilitator. Funded by about $2 million in annual property taxes, the SMC acts as a coordinating body to help the municipalities meet the EPA's requirements.

The task isn't easy, says Paszkiewicz. Since the commission isn't an intermediary between the state EPA and the municipalities, it doesn't necessarily see the end result of its work. Because each municipality has responsibility in reporting for its permit, the SMC falls out of the picture. “We believe we're moving in the right direction, but rely on the municipalities and state for feedback,” says Paszkiewicz.

His concerns are echoed by many Phase II permit holders. Phase II requirements affect urban areas in municipalities that have regulated small municipal separate storm sewer systems, also known as MS4s. Under Phase II, these communities were instructed by the EPA to develop stormwater programs that address six minimum control measures. Unless you're specifically reprimanded by the EPA, how do you know if your plan is successful?

“We're all learning,” says Jenny Molloy, a biologist in the EPA's municipal stormwater program in Washington, D.C. Since this is a relatively new program, there are few cut-and-dry rules, leading municipalities to interpret the six minimum control measures differently.

Molloy recommends that MS4s work closely with their permitting authorities, most of which are at the state level. “They provide technical assistance to those who make an earnest effort,” she says.

Whether it's a lone municipality or a group of municipalities—known as an urbanized area—that must meet these requirements, communication is key. The SMC, for example, helps facilitate this discussion between all of the permitted agencies in Lake County. But what if you don't have a commission like this?

“It's commitment to water quality versus compliance to regulations,” says Paszkiewicz. “Some communities are committed to water quality, so compliance will follow that.” If you've already committed resources and money to ensuring that stormwater is handled correctly, this permit—or the next one—should move the community toward real water quality improvement.

Some stormwater agencies feel that NPDES is a paper exercise, and should be easy to perform if you're already committed to the process.

Michael Burwell, supervisor in the planning and environmental section of Tampa's stormwater department, agrees. “Do it yourself and you'll learn things you need to know,” he says. His municipality, which is a Phase I community, started the process in 1991. It took many months to put together the appropriate materials, and was “comprehensive, but not complicated.”

A watery six-pack

The EPA's six minimum control measures seem pretty basic, and can be interpreted in various ways.

Any community in Phase I or II already knows what they're expected to do. But how do you meet these permit requirements? How do you make sure you're ready for the next level of permitting? And how do you ensure that you're up to snuff with your local EPA's conditions? The EPA's six minimum control measures spell it out—to a degree.

  • Public education and outreach
  • Public involvement and participation
  • Illicit discharge detection and elimination
  • Construction site runoff control
  • New development and redevelopment
  • Pollution prevention and good housekeeping for municipal operations.

Stormwater headaches

BMPs are commonly used to reduce stormwater woes, but they can be difficult to navigate.

When asked about the biggest challenges to managing stormwater, readers to a recent exclusive survey weren't shy. The top five issues, shown in the chart, ranked as “very important” to our readers. These problems are followed by watersheds (43%), aging equipment/infrastructure (40%), and constituent relations (40%).

According to the same survey, some of the best management practices (BMPs) and resources that our readers use include:

  • Storage/detention systems: 81%
  • Consultants: 70%
  • Drainage equipment: 63%
  • Sweepers: 58%