The Bird-Brained Approach to Stormwater

Down in Richmond, the General Assembly is determining how to prepare for the inevitable requirement to reduce pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.

We know already that Virginia jurisdictions are sending an excess of nitrogen downstream.  There are dead zones in the bay, where oxygen is exhausted and the fish die.  Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, the bay and many streams in our area have been classified as “impaired.”

The EPA will tell Virginia in November, as part of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) study, how much pollution the state will be allowed to contribute to the bay.  We’ll get a cap on nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment.  There’s debate about the acceptable levels of phosphorous, and EPA has been slow to identify the sediment numbers – but there’s no debate that Virginia and every other state will need to reduce nitrogen flowing to the bay.

Guess how the General Assembly is demonstrating leadership, getting ahead of the problem rather than waiting for the Federal government to intervene?
We’re acting like the proverbial ostrich, and sticking our heads in the sand.

The Senate Agriculture, Conservation & Natural Resources committee will consider SB395 on Monday.  That bill delays implementation of the state’s new stormwater control regulations from July, 2010  “until completion of the Virginia Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) Implementation Plan.”   Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan is due to be finished in November, 2011.

Virginia is doing everything it can now to demonstrate to EPA (and the Federal judge who is responsible for enforcing the consent decree signed by Virginia in 1999…) that new, strong Federal/judicial mandates will be required before Virginia will reduce stormwater pollution affecting the Chesapeake Bay.

The General Assembly is delaying action to start cleaning up the bay.  When we finally get started, expect loud complaining about the big bad Feds and their unreasonable deadlines, followed by requests for further delay.

Lots of hot air comes from Washington DC, but we Virginians generate the excessive nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment that is killing the fish.  Excessive pollution comes from Virginia.  The fish can’t hold their breath while the General Assembly gets comfortable with a schedule for meeting the standards in the Clean Water Act – which we committed to complete meeting by 2000, when Virginia signed the 1987 Chesapeake Bay Agreement.

Since 1987, Virginia officials have started to tackle pollution from wastewater and agriculture.

Wastewater controls have been a success, to date.  With the help of EPA grants and the pressure to comply with “point source” permits, sewage plant operators have upgraded plants and squeezed out much of the nitrogen from our wastewater.  Locally, expensive upgrades at Mooney, UOSA, and Dale City plants are finished or near completion.

Controls on agricultural pollution also include some success stories.  We have very little farmland remaining in PW County/Manassas, so implementing Best Management Practices (BMP’s) won’t help us cut back significantly on our pollution contributions (though every little bit helps).

We are still ducking stormwater, however.  Reducing stormwater runoff will require changing the way we build new subdivisions.  It’s possible to protect existing streams and minimize new pavement… but “greener” development requires developers to change their approach.

The only place to reduce a substantial amount of nitrogen now flowing to the bay from Prince William: reduce  stormwater.  It won’t be easy.

Prince William’s population will increase 35% over the next 20 years, but the cap on how much nitrogen we can send downstream in 2030 will remain unchanged.   EPA is completing a Total Maximum Daily Load study, not a total per capita study.

To meet Clean Water Act standards and comply with the 1999 court order that’s pushing EPA to become aggressive, that means per capita pollution in Prince William will have to go down significantly when the population increases significantly.  (When 35% more residents flush 35% new toilets, we’ll add greater amounts of nitrogen pollution to the bay – and just flushing 35% fewer times won’t work.)

At the state level, politicians are pushing off any stormwater controls until after EPA makes us do something.  This is part of a conscious political plan.  Late in 2011, look for state officials to blame the Federal government, claiming it is an “unfunded mandate” to clean up the bay.

Don’t believe it.  Polluters should clean up their own pollution.  Factory owners should pay to minimize pollution emitted from their factories.  If Prince William sends excessive nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment downstream, then Prince William should clean up its act.

The cheapest way to do that: minimize the stormwater that gets into the local creeks.  Protect streamside buffers of natural vegetation, so they trap nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment on the land and keep pollution out of the creek.

When the Planning Commission and then the Board of County Supervisors vote on the new Environment Chapter for the county’s Comprehensive Plan, we’ll see if they choose the cost-effective method of reducing pollution, or if they opt for expensive engineering solutions (including stormwater ponds) and delay action as long as possible.

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2 comments so far

  1. Nokesville Neighbor on

    This may be another reason why the PA staff is trying to rush through the Wiita Tract Plan. I would guess that the state would have a problem with a project that will have a tremendous environmental impact on Broad Run with just the sort of stormwater run off they are trying to limit.

  2. Al Alborn on

    So… why not make fertilizing yards, golf courses, and large expanses of grass on public and private property illegal? Every year, most of the almost 400K residents of Prince William County (as well as the rest of Northern Virginia) as well as businesses dump mega-tons of commercial fertilizer (which consist of the nitrogen and phosphorus of which you speak plus potassium) and on non-native grasses creating biological dead zones for ascetic reasons. Isn’t protecting the watershed important enough to consider breaking that cycle? Allowing native species to flourish and biological diversity to occur is, of course, a step forward for the environment. I don’t know the math on how much of the load is commercial fertilizers; however, it isn’t “rocket science” to assume that the Scotts Four Step we religiously dump on our yards contribute to the problem.


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