EPA Pushes Cities toward Better Stormwater Management

Bloomberg BNA — Requirements that municipalities use green infrastructure as part of their stormwater management practices are becoming more common in local and state permitting procedures and regulations, an Environmental Protection Agency official said.

The EPA itself often incorporates water-quality measures into consent agreements it reaches with municipalities on combined sewer overflows, Bob Newport, a stormwater specialist with EPA Region 5, said at a May 9 conference on green infrastructure in Lansing, Mich., sponsored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“It's common now that green infrastructure is part of the solution” in CSO settlements, Newport said.

Cities and states also are using incentives. Minnesota, for example, has its Blue Star Award program that recognizes municipalities for excellence in stormwater management. They are also imposing requirements, as Milwaukee is doing with its new sewer systems green infrastructure program, Newport said.

Some localities are revamping codes and ordinances to allow for green infrastructure, removing language that sets mowing requirements or expanding landscaping rules to allow for features like bioretention, which allows stormwater to be captured in vegetated areas where it can seep into the ground naturally instead of being funneled into the sewer system, Newport said.

Though the EPA decided against imposing a national standard for stormwater, the agency will continue to enforce regulations under the authority it has under existing statutes, Newport said.

Maintenance Plans Necessary

What works at one site won't necessarily work at another, Newport said.

“We want to encourage infiltration, but we want people to think about the right way to do it,” he said.

When incorporating green requirements into the permitting process, localities need to ensure there's a maintenance plan in place to make sure the system continues to do its job, he said. Wisconsin, he noted, requires a long-term maintenance agreement in place before a permit is issued.

The EPA is in talks with some 23 cities and towns to write and implement integrated plans to manage stormwater and wastewater, another EPA official said at a National League of Cities event in March.

The EPA could allow cities and towns to modify consent decrees or reopen Clean Water Act discharge permits in order to prioritize projects based on affordability, said Mark Pollins, director of the EPA's water enforcement division.

Climate Change, Managing Stormwater

Climate change will play a role in stormwater management, as rainfall data recorded many years ago are no longer relevant, Region 5's Newport said.

The EPA will work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others to update those records to account for an increasing number of severe storms to adjust requirements for how strong storms systems must be, he said. The numbers won't change, but the substance of the projects will, he said.

“The new 95th percentile storm is still your goal,” he said. “The percentile still works. It's just bigger.”

Several conference participants cited lack of funding as a major barrier to the widespread adoption of green infrastructure.

In Michigan, restrictions on property taxes “put some difficult constraints” on municipalities seeking to fund green infrastructure projects, as voters must approve millages and bond issues, said Roger Swets, an attorney at Dickinson Wright in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Public input is a big part of these things,” so it's essential to build voter support for new projects, he said.

Special assessments may be a way to get projects done if it can be shown that the property and public will benefit from the improvement, Swets said. Though the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2013 ruled that a stormwater fee issued by the city of Jackson was a tax and therefore needed to go before voters, “in the future, there might be more regulatory restrictions on property, and [a green infrastructure project] might be relieving them of an obligation,” he said.

Grand Rapids Strategy

Without the ability to collect stormwater fees from property owners, Grand Rapids has cobbled together funding from grants and other sources to get projects done, said Carrie Rivette, stormwater manager for the city.

CSO funds, a community development block grant and foundation money helped the city put together a park that doubles as a stormwater treatment facility, she said. Another park that would handle 135 acres of runoff is in the works, she said.

Grand Rapids does enjoy “big community involvement,” Rivette said. Voters on May 6 approved a plan known as “vital streets,” which extends an expiring income tax for 15 years in order to improve streets using low-impact development unless that's proved to be infeasible, she said.

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