Don’t blame the farmers. You should blame…

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Fact Sheet on Chesapeake Bay Water Quality,  “runoff from urban and suburban lands is the one source of pollution that is increasing.”

With the help of the Cooperative Extension program and with state/Federal grants, many of Prince William’s farmers and horse owners are implementing Best Management Practices to minimize water pollution.  We have a long way to go before we reduce nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment enough to meet Federal Clean Water Act standards, but the farmers are moving in the right direction.

As for the home builders and developers in Prince William… well, that’s a different story.

In their November 10, 2009 comments on the draft to update the Environment Chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, the home builders and developers are working hard to reduce protection of local streams.  For example, they propose weakening the language in the existing 2003 chapter that seeks to protect stream segments that are not classified as “perennial.”

Current language (EN Policy 5, Action Strategy 9) says “Encourage the preservation of a natural buffer of existing woodland or forestation area of a least 50 feet along each side of all waterways that are not otherwise protected under the Chesapeake Bay regulations or similar legislation.”

Buffers are the cheapest way to control pollution from stormwater. If we leave a thin strip of undisturbed vegetation on each edge of a stream, there’s no need for expensive water control structures.  Natural filtration processes in a buffer keep nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment out of the stream.

The state’s Chesapeake Bay regulations require designation of Resource Protection Area (RPA) buffers, if a stream qualifies as perennial after a technical evaluation.  Streams scoring less than 25 points are intermittent or ephemeral, in a classification that is affected by professional judgment as well as current conditions.  As the developers themselves note (p.2) , “these scores can easily vary in non-perennial streams by 3 points just due to precedent climatic conditions and time of year.”

So it makes sense to be conservative, and keep pollution out of small streams that may have scored less than 25 points.  Let’s use the cheapest form of stormwater control – buffers – at the start of each stream (“a stitch in time…”).  After all, in every heavy rain, whatever pollution reached the smaller stream segments will flow downstream to the bigger, perennial sections of the stream.  If we discourage damage to small as well as large perennial stream segments, we can minimize stormwater pollution far cheaper than if we build massive stormwater retention ponds.  (In the long term, maintenance cost of natural buffers is zero, while maintaining engineered pollution control structures ain’t cheap.)

What’s the impact of protecting small as well as large perennial streams?  In their comments on the draft Environment Chapter, the developers claim the current RPA buffer of 100′ limits development on 31,000 acres in Prince William County – and that adding a 100′ buffer to the remaining stream segments would affect another 28,000 acres.

Even if you accept the numbers generated by the developers (remember, they’re trying to paint a worst-case scenario), this is just 12.6% of the county.  There’s still plenty of opportunity to design profitable developments on the remaining acreage, unless the intent is to pave every single acre.  Developers can still get plenty rich in Prince William; they just need to design their site plans differently.  Build two-story Wegman-like stores rather than one-story Virginia Gateway boxes, save the streams, reduce the new acreage of impervious surface… and still make a good profit.

We gotta do something.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan, EPA will require Prince William to reduce stormwater pollution below current levels – and that’s before 120,000 new residents arrive here by 2025.  Stormwater pollution per capita must drop, dramatically.  If you don’t like Plan A to minimize pollution, what’s Plan B… and who do you expect to pay for it?

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