Lindsay McNamara, Columnist
Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing from: University of Delaware

In the last couple months there have been recording-setting amounts of precipitation across the U.S.  Lately, on top of the melting snow and ice, reminiscent of our harsh, relentless winter, spring-like rain has fallen, creating dangerous traveling conditions.  Recent flooding has been caused not only by large amounts of precipitation falling in a very short amount of time but because of the absurd amounts of impervious surfaces in the U.S.  In natural areas, stormwater gets absorbed into the soil, where it cycles back into the earth to recharge groundwater supplies.  Stormwater, however, cannot be absorbed back into the earth through parking lots, paved streets, and building rooftops.  These impervious surfaces cause stormwater runoff, which leads to not only flooding events and problems for wastewater treatment systems, but to pollution of our rivers and streams and ultimately, our sources of drinking water.

Polluted stormwater runoff can have extremely harmful effects on the plants, fish and animals that live in America’s watersheds and the people who drink from them.  Soil and other sediments carried off in runoff can cloud water and make it hard for aquatic plants to grow.  Also, excess nutrients from lawn care and agricultural fertilizers can cause algae blooms.  Large quantities of nutrients allow for a surplus of algae to grow.  When algae die, they sink to the bottom of the water of body and decompose in a way that removes oxygen from the water.  With an incredible amount of algae, incredible amounts of oxygen are removed from the water, making fish and other organisms unable to survive in water with such low levels of dissolved oxygen.  Furthermore, litter such as, plastic bags, six-pack rings, bottles, and cigarette butts that are washed into water bodies can choke, suffocate, or disable aquatic life like ducks, fish, turtles, and birds. Finally, household hazardous wastes (paint, solvents, used motor oil and other auto fluids) can poison aquatic flora and fauna, which leads to sickness in land animals and people who consume these diseased fish/shellfish or ingest the polluted water.

In an attempt to regulate stormwater pollutants, Congress broadened the Clean Water Act (1972) definition of “point source” to include industrial stormwater discharges and municipal separate storm sewer systems in 1987.  Congress expanded the definition because although the Clean Water Act brought some success in regulating point source pollution, water bodies in the U.S. were still grossly “impaired,” most likely due to ever present stormwater runoff issues.  Under the Clean Water Act, point source discharges to “waters of the United States” required National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.  The expansion to stormwater discharges in 1987 was publicized in two phases.  Phase I required all municipalities of 100,000+ people, industrial discharges and construction sites of 5+ acres to have NPDES permits for their stormwater runoff.  The majority of these permits were issued in 1991.  Phase II obliged all municipalities, industrial dischargers, construction sites of 1+ acres, and other large property owners (like school districts) to have NPDES permits for their stormwater discharges. This came about in 2003.  According to the EPA, 46 states have issued NPDES permits.

Instead of allowing for municipalities, industries and construction firms to pay to pollute, the EPA should regulate not only the amount of pollutants entering waterways from stormwater runoff, but also the amount of new impervious surface allowed within municipalities.  The EPA should establish a standard (perhaps 15%) for how much stormwater must be diverted from the waters of the United States.  Areas like, lawn care, septic systems, auto care, pet waste, commercial uses, construction industry, agriculture, forestry, and automotive facilities should be addressed. With new “Green Infrastructure” methods and a grassroots effort from communities, stormwater can be used efficiently to foster sustainable municipalities, instead of flooding our streets and polluting our streams.

A few “Green Infrastructure” options to help make stormwater management programs a success:

  • An action that would make the most initial impact on stormwater runoff management would be to reconnect gutters and roof drains that are directly connected to storm sewer systems to rain gardens, which can capture, treat, and infiltrate roof runoff, or rain barrels.
  • Rain gardens are an excellent way to bring stormwater back into the groundwater recharge system.  Selecting plants with a variety of heights, textures and bloom times can create a beautiful landscape.  Rain gardens are being planted all across the country, in urban centers, suburbs and university campuses.
  • The University of Delaware boosts many rain gardens and even the installation of a green roof on top of Colburn Laboratory, a chemistry building on campus.  The green roof will not only collect stormwater, but regulate the unbearable temperature of some of the chemistry classrooms in the building.
  • Rain barrels are another excellent way to manage stormwater by collecting rainwater to irrigate community/family gardens or for lawn care.  Rain barrels can be made from any large container around 55 gallons or so.  Curb bump-outs where trees are planted along streets help to beautify urban settings and reduce stormwater runoff.

While it is all well and good to collect stormwater and plant rain gardens, there will always be a need for more parking spaces and a comprehensive stormwater management plan should include this aspect as well.  An environmentally friendly solution to the need for more parking lots and paved roads is porous pavement.  Unlike traditional pavement, which does not offer any hope for stormwater absorption, porous pavement is a permeable pavement surface with a stone reservoir underneath.  The reservoir stores surface runoff for a time before infiltrating it into the subsoil.  The runoff goes directly into the soil and receives some water quality treatment with this process.  Porous Pavement looks the same as traditional asphalt or concrete, but it made without “fine materials and instead uses void spaces to allow for infiltration of stormwater. Sustainable and functional, porous pavement reduces pollutants in stormwater runoff, increases groundwater recharge, and decreases flooding and contamination of streams and rivers.

It is imperative that the EPA begins to view stormwater management from a holistic perspective, including not only point source pollution from runoff into our rivers and streams, but “Green Infrastructure” standards to reduce the amount of new impervious surfaces in the U.S. and to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff in the first place, through the implementation of sustainable methods like, rain barrels, rains gardens, and green roves.