Stormwater Management – It’s Failing in Other Places Too

The New York Times noted today that the Clean Water Act “is designed to target specific contaminants, when the problem with stormwater often is one of volume. A surge of water after a storm can cause streams to erode and fill waterways with sediment.”

There is no serious debate regarding the damage caused by paving our fields/forests, then having rainwater race off the impervious surfaces into local creeks.  We know that erosion and excessive sediment triggered by runoff is slowly killing 1,000 miles of streams in Prince William County, and the Chesapeake Bay itself.  (For background, see Stormwater and Streams).

The question is “what to do about it?”

The National Academy of Sciences has just proposed an answer… and it is not “more of the same.”

Traditionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has empowered the state of Virginia to enforce Clean Water Act requirements through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.  Virginia has empowered counties/cities such as Prince William and Manassas/Manassas Park to require developers to reduce stormwater impacts.

Local governments require developers to create stormwater plans for each project… but this approach is not working.  As noted in the summary of the National Academy of Sciences Urban Stormwater Management in the United States report, “EPA’s program has monitoring requirements that are so benign as to be of little use for the purposes of program compliance. Most dischargers have no measurable, enforceable requirements.”

Though developers have to build stormwater ponds for new projects, Prince William taxpayers are covering the operations and maintenance cost.   This county subsidizes developers by assuming responsibility for monitoring/repairing all those stormwater ponds, and homeowners must pay an extra stormwater tax of about $26/year… plus the additional major expenses when dams break.  (For more, see Lake Terrapin: What Happens When Stormwater Systems Fail)

The National Academy of Sciences proposes a dramatic change in how stormwater permits are issued.  The news release says:
– “Because the area being appropriated for urban land use is growing faster than the population, stormwater management will be ineffective without also considering land use management…”
– “…EPA should adopt a watershed-based permitting system that would encompass all discharges — including stormwater and wastewater — which could impact waterways in a particular drainage basin, rather than having many individual permits.  Responsibility and authority for implementing watershed-based permits should be centralized with a lead municipality that would work in partnership with other municipalities.”


If you look at the map, you’ll see land use approvals for development in the Occoquan Reservoir are issued now by 11 jurisdictions – five counties (Stafford, Fauquier, Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax), three towns (Warrenton, Haymarket, Occoquan), and three independent cities (Manassas, Manassas Park, Fairfax).

Hmmm… think the officials in 11 jurisdictions in Northern Virginia could “partner” on stormwater?  Some already do on transportation, jails, and air quality, but we’ll have to stretch existing relationships dramatically to manage by watersheds and tributaries.

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