With the challenge of reducing urban and suburban runoff at the forefront of discussions at all levels of government, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Monday released a new report: Polluted Runoff: How Investing in Runoff Pollution Control Systems Improves the Region’s Ecology, Economy, and Health.
The purpose of this report is to shed light on the problem, debunk myths around the costs of solutions, and call for actions to be taken that will reduce the damage of polluted runoff.
“As the only major pollution source continuing to grow, attention is now focused on reducing untreated urban/suburban runoff,” said CBF President William C. Baker. “This is a local problem requiring local solutions that will provide significant local benefits. But there are important roles for the federal and state governments in tackling the challenges of polluted runoff.”
When rain hits hard surfaces, like streets, parking lots, and lawns, it collects a toxic mix of pollutants including bacteria, chemicals, and nitrogen and phosphorus. Nationally, researchers have found pesticides in 97 percent of urban runoff samples, at levels high enough to harm aquatic life 83 percent of the time. Our antiquated system for managing this polluted runoff in many existing towns and cities is to get it as quickly as possible, untreated, into local rivers and streams.
The visible results are beach closures, flooding, and fish consumption advisories. The less visible results are serious damage to the life in our rivers and streams. Researchers have found that Brook trout disappear when only 2 percent of a watershed is paved over. Sensitive amphibians disappear when 3 or more percent is paved. And yellow perch stop reproducing when 10 percent of a watershed is paved.
Some examples of local streams whose aquatic life is at risk due to the percent of the watershed that is paved are: the Bynum Run-Bush Creek watershed in Harford County, Maryland, which is at least nine percent covered; the Hogestown Run and Wertz Run watersheds, just west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which are at least five percent paved; and the South Fork Rivanna River watershed north of Charlottesville, Virginia, which is at least five percent covered.
The runoff problem is two-fold: first, many towns and cities were built when treating runoff merely meant getting rid of it; and second, the urban and suburban runoff continues to grow as development spreads far and wide.
Every year new development paves over 10,000 acres of forests and farms, an alarming rate. To put that in perspective, every four years an area of land the size of Washington, D.C. is paved or hardened in the Chesapeake Bay Region.
“The costs of reducing runoff pollution can be substantial, but initial estimates have been found to be dramatically overestimated,” Baker said.
For example, an analysis by the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center found that one Maryland county could reduce its costs by 96 percent by using more efficient methods and targeting investments in projects that provide the greatest environmental benefits.
Another study by the Finance Center found that investments in reducing polluted runoff benefit local economies and create jobs. For example, every $100 million invested in Lynchburg, VA, returns $170 million to the local economy and supports 1,440 local jobs. In Anne Arundel County, MD, that same investment returns $115 million to the local economy and supports 780 jobs.
The report found that the three major Bay states and federal government all need to do more to limit the damage caused by urban and suburban polluted runoff.
In Pennsylvania, CBF is calling on the Governor and lawmakers to restore funding and update standards for Pennsylvania’s 1978 Storm Water Management Act. This planning program received state funding through 2008, but then was zeroed out.
The law requires counties to prepare stormwater management plans to reduce pollution and flooding, and implement the plans through local ordinances. These plans need state support for Pennsylvania to meet its commitments to the Clean Water Blueprint.
CBF also calls on the legislature to pass legislation to limit the type of lawn fertilizers that can be sold and the time of year it can be applied. Similar legislation has already been passed in Maryland and Virginia.
Lawmakers should also reject a proposed bill (House Bill 1565) that would remove requirements for new developments to protect or restore forests along some of Pennsylvania’s most pristine streams. Forest buffers play an important role in controlling flooding, filtering pollution, and maintaining a healthy stream.
Finally, CBF encourages regional cooperation in efforts to reduce polluted runoff. Because of the fragmented nature of Pennsylvania governments, cooperative projects could save money and more effectively reduce pollution. York, Lycoming, and Lancaster counties already employ programs to share resources, and other municipalities should follow their example.
“We know that meeting clean water demands can be challenging for local municipalities with limited staff, resources, and expertise,” said CBF Pennsylvania Executive Director Harry Campbell. “And while the state’s Clean Water Blueprint provides the big-picture plan for cleaner waters, it must first be translated to a local level to get the job done. CBF is working with municipalities to provide educational and technical assistance to help local leaders curb the problem.”
At the federal level, CBF calls on EPA to enact new, national stormwater regulations. CBF also calls on EPA to ensure that permits proposed by the states include measurable and enforceable pollution limits.
“The problems are large, but not insurmountable,” Baker said. “The progress being made to reduce pollution from agriculture and sewage treatment plants has demonstrated that progress can be made when businesses, governments, and individuals work together. That model must now be applied to reducing pollution from urban and suburban runoff.”A copy of the report is available online.