Managing Stormwater: Key in Water Pollution, Beach Closures

August 4, 2010

The most effective way to minimize water pollution is to manage stormwater runoff well. However, stormwater management usually falls to an uneven patchwork of local infrastructure and regulations, and the impacts are often felt far from where the rains fall. Here's a roundup of recent developments and resources that can help you cover how local stormwater management fits into the regional and national picture, in terms of government and the environment.

The 20th annual beach report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, released July 28, states: "In 2009, stormwater runoff was the primary known source of pollution at beaches nationwide, consistent with past years." In 2009, 39% of US beach closing/advisory days were due to stormwater runoff — but additionally, many of the other EPA-listed causes (such as "unknown" or "sewage overflow") were probably often stormwater-related.

The NRDC report recommends widespread implementation of "green infrastructure" (such as green roofs, permeable pavement, roadside plantings, and rain barrels) to control and treat stormwater pollution. These tools retain rainwater where it falls and either store it for later use or allow it to soak back into the ground. The report describes several examples of green infrastructure projects from around the country. Many recent projects received stimulus funding.

On July 8, Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the Green Infrastructure for Clean Water Act of 2010 (S 3561). This bill is currently being considered by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. According to a Udall press release, this bill would "establish up to five regional centers of excellence that would spearhead the research and development of new stormwater management techniques… [And] also establish a green infrastructure program within the EPA's Office of Water to coordinate and promote the use of new stormwater techniques. EPA's regional offices would complete similar efforts."

A key inspiration for this bill was a 2008 National Research Council report that detailed several key issues and proposed specific green infrastructure and policy solutions for stormwater management.

The NRC report, which criticized how EPA addresses stormwater runoff, also helped spur EPA to start overhauling national stormwater regulations. This ball got rolling in October 2009, when the agency announced its information-gathering process and started taking public comments. EPA is now formulating its proposed rule, which will revamp stormwater requirements at least for newly developed and redeveloped sites (possibly more). A final rule is expected by November 2012.

EPA also is revamping its "effluent guidelines," which are national standards for wastewater discharges to surface waters and municipal sewage treatment plants. This includes pollution from industrial or commercial sites that gets transported into the environment via stormwater runoff.