Future Economic Development – and Competition – in Prince William Requires Better Stormwater Management – Now

When the state completes its detailed Watershed Implementation Plans for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup in 2011, Prince William County will get a “pollution budget” for the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment that we can send downstream.  These three  types of pollution will get specific total maximum daily load (TMDL) limits, in order to meet the 1972 Clean Water Act requirements. 

In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, there are three primary sources of pollution: wastewater treatment plants, agriculture, and stormwater runoff.   Efforts since 1983 to control pollution from wastewater and agriculture are paying off, but pollution from stormwater keeps increasing as we pave more fields and forests.

Prince William wants to grow, adding new houses, offices, and retail developments.  New growth creates new pollution.  Federal law requires that we manage the pollution we generate and send downstream.  That’s fair, not an “unfunded mandate” – polluters should be responsible for reducing the pollution that they create.  Therefore, Prince William will need to reduce its excessive stormwater runoff, in order to grow.

It won’t be cheap.  To reduce our stormwater runoff, we’ll need to change the way we develop sites in Prince William today.  We can’t  cut down on the pollution that flows off roofs/roads from new subdivisions, shopping centers, etc.,  if we just repeat the traditional scrape-off-the-trees-and-pave-the-site approach for new development.

As for old development – hold your wallet.  Someone (if you’re a local taxpayer, this is when you look in the mirror…) will have to pay to retrofit existing places with inadequate (or no) stormwater controls.  County officials are already manipulating the budget, preparing for an increase in the Stormwater Utility Fee in the 2011-2012 budget.  

Do we really need to bother, or will this “Save the Bay” initiative fizzle like all the rest – especially if Obama is voted out of office in 2012?

Yes, we need to act, and act now.  A judge is now requiring compliance with the law.  Starting in 1983, Virginia officials made “Save the Bay” promises that no one planned to keep, but that game is over.  If Prince William fails to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act, we risk a court order blocking new development. 

Yes, that’s a realistic scenario.  Old-time residents will remember that in the 1960’s, Dale City exceeded sewage treatment capacity and a building moratorium was imposed.  Local developers and elected officials know that history.  What’s odd is that the county officials keep talking as if “business as usual” will produce, in some magical way, compliance with the Clean Water Act. 

The do-nothing-different crowd say there’s no need to update the Environment Chapter in the Comprehensive Plan and keep pollution out of small streams.  Developers claim that we only need to protect the large streams, the “perennial” streams with large flows 12 months per year.  They want us to ignore Physics 101, and pretend that dirty water added to small streams will never flow downhill and pollute large streams. 

You’ll hear in the debate over the Environment Chapter update that business-as-usual is essential.  Standard site planning, where small streams are buried in pipes, will protect the profits of a few developers with extraordinary influence in the Planning Department. 

Under the protect-just-perennial-streams-and-ignore-Physics 101 approach, sprawling subdivisions such as Avendale and massive paving for places such as Virginia Gateway would still be approved by the county… at least until the Federal judge loses patience.  

Is the do-nothing-different crowd sticking its head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, pretending there’s no Ches Bay cleanup mandate?  Maybe, but maybe they are thinking ahead, hoping that a Federal judge will freeze new permits in a few years.   If developers with good political connections can get projects “vested” now, and future competition could be blocked by a building moratorium… hmm, imagine how that might benefit the I-got-my-approvals-before-the-door-closed developers.

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