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Expert Report: EPA Stormwater Program Needs "Radical Changes"

WASHINGTON, DC, October 15, 2008 (ENS) – Increased water volume and pollutants from stormwater have degraded water quality and habitats in virtually every urban stream system in the United States, says a new report from the National Research Council.

The committee of experts that wrote the report says, “Radical changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stormwater program are necessary to reverse degradation of fresh water resources and ensure progress toward the Clean Water Act’s goal of ‘fishable and swimmable’ waters.”

“EPA’s current approach is not likely to produce an accurate picture of the extent of the problem, nor is it likely to control stormwater’s contribution to impairing water quality,” wrote the 14 member committee, chaired by Claire Welty, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and director of the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at the University of Maryland.

The EPA itself requested this assessment of its stormwater permitting program. and the committee’s report was sponsored by the agency.

In 1987, Congress brought stormwater control into the Clean Water Act and placed it under EPA supervision. The agency now oversees stormwater discharged by cities, industries, and construction sites.


Stormwater empties into a tributary of
the Potomac River in Maryland. (Photo
courtesy Potomac Conservancy)

Currently, stormwater and wastewater regulations require separate permits; within stormwater regulations, different types of permits exist for municipalities, industries, and construction sites.

The current regulatory framework for stormwater, which was originally designed to address sewage and industrial wastes, has suffered from poor accountability and uncertainty about its effectiveness at improving water quality, said the committee in its report.

Following rain or snow in urban areas, large quantities of water flow over impervious surfaces, such as streets, parking lots, and rooftops, picking up garbage, asphalt sealants, motor fuels, and other chemicals.

This polluted stormwater is then collected by natural channels and artificial drainage systems and routed to nearby streams, rivers, lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The committee recommended that the EPA adopt a permitting system based on watersheds that would encompass all discharges – stormwater and wastewater – which could impact waterways in a particular drainage basin, rather than having many individual permits.

Responsibility and authority for implementing watershed permits should be centralized with a lead municipality that would work in partnership with other municipalities, the committee suggested. The lead municipalities would receive enhanced funding to compensate for increased responsibility,

Even if the EPA decides not to adopt watershed-based permitting, adjustments could be made to the stormwater program, such as bringing construction and industrial sites under the jurisdiction of their associated municipalities, referred to as “integration” by the committee.

Federal and state permitting authorities do not have and could not expect to have enough personnel to inspect and enforce stormwater regulations on more than 100,000 point source facilities discharging stormwater.

A better structure would allow operators of municipal storm sewer systems to act as the first tier of control, the committee suggested, adding that the EPA’s successful treatment program for municipal and industrial wastewater sources could serve as a model for integration.

The committee recommended that the federal government provide more financial support to state and local efforts to regulate stormwater. Funds for the wastewater program greatly outnumber the stormwater program, even though there are five times more stormwater permit holders than wastewater permit holders.

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, the report says.

Future land development and its potential increases in stormwater must be considered and addressed in the EPA’s stormwater regulatory program.

Permit programs could be based on “rigorous projections of future growth and changes in impervious cover,” the committee said, “or regulators could be encouraged to use incentives to lessen the impact of land development.”

Additionally, the committee recommended that the stormwater program focus less on chemical pollutants and more on the increased volume of water.

In urban areas, stormwater flows rapidly across the land surfaces and arrives at streams in short, concentrated bursts of high water discharges, which in turn increases streambank erosion and accompanying sediment pollution of surface water. But the volume of discharges is not regulated at all by the EPA.

Also, little account is taken of the cumulative contributions of multiple sources and pollutants in the same watershed, because most discharges are regulated on an individual basis.

The committee also addressed conserving natural areas, reducing hard surface cover such as roads and parking lots that channel stormwater into waterways, and retrofitting urban areas with features that hold and treat stormwater.

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