Fighting Stormwater Pollution
Guest post by Rebecca Hammer, Project Attorney, Water Program, with EarthShare member organization Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council,
American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation, and a number of regional partner
with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address one of the leading
and most pervasive sources of water pollution in the US: stormwater runoff from
existing developed sites.
Every time it rains, water washes off of hard surfaces like
roads, parking lots, and rooftops instead of soaking into the ground like it
would in a natural environment. After
running off of these impervious surfaces, stormwater flows through gutters and
pipes directly into our local waterways, carrying dirt, fertilizer, trash, oil,
grease, metals, and any other substance it comes into contact with along the
runoff has caused thousands of water bodies nationwide to become impaired –
meaning that they do not meet state water quality standards. The higher the percentage of an area covered
by developed land, the greater the harm to local waters.
This runoff threatens our health and costs our communities
money due to flooding damage and lost tourism revenue. As shown by the recent installment of NRDC’s
annual beach report, Testing the Waters, stormwater runoff is the largest known
source of beach closings and advisory days nationwide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that
polluted urban runoff contributes to 25% of economic losses from flooding, totaling
nearly $1 billion every year.
The good news is that
we can solve the stormwater problem.
In many places, sites that are newly developed or redeveloped are
required to build in controls that reduce the amount of runoff pollution they
generate. These runoff controls often
take the form of beautiful
green infrastructure practices like green roofs, rain gardens, and roadside
trees, which retain rainwater right where it falls by soaking it up or letting
it filter into the ground naturally.
But developments put into place in years past usually have
no such controls. Existing developments
across the country continue to pollute nearby waters with the stormwater they
That’s why our organizations are petitioning the EPA to take
action and require developed sites to use practices that reduce the amount of
stormwater pollution they generate. Our
waters will never be clean and safe until these existing sources of contamination
Fortunately, the Clean Water Act empowers the EPA with the
authority – and the responsibility – to fix this problem. Known as “residual designation authority,” a
provision in the statute directs the agency to require management of runoff
from sources of stormwater that contribute to violations of water quality
standards. We are asking the EPA to
require stormwater management for commercial, industrial, and institutional
sites in certain areas: watersheds that are impaired by pollutants like copper,
lead, zinc, phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment.
We know from decades of scientific research that sites in
these three land use categories consistently create runoff with large amounts
of pollutants. That means we know they
are contributing to existing local water body impairments. And in turn, they are contributing to
problems like contamination of drinking water supplies, beach closures, and
fish habitat degradation.
We filed these petitions in three EPA regions: Region 1 (New
England), Region 3 (mid-Atlantic), and Region 9 (southwest and
California). We chose these regions
because they are home to some of the nation’s most historic and threatened
waters, and because our organizations call these regions home too. But stormwater pollution is a nationwide
problem, and we think that the solutions we’re asking to be applied in these
regions can and should be replicated everywhere that runoff is causing our water
bodies to become degraded.
Not only will requiring pollution sources to take action
make our waters safer and healthier, but it will also help cities and towns
that are financially struggling to meet current clean water requirements. Right now, taxpayers are bearing the burden
of reducing the impacts of existing stormwater discharges. We believe that polluters should help to
share the clean-up costs – it’s only fair.
We hope that EPA will grant these petitions without delay so that
existing sources of pollution will be held accountable for reducing their
impacts on our communities.