Guest post by Rebecca Hammer, Project Attorney, Water Program, with EarthShare member organization Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation, and a number of regional partner organizations filed three petitions with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address one of the leading and most pervasive sources of water pollution in the US: stormwater runoff from existing developed sites.
Every time it rains, water washes off of hard surfaces like roads, parking lots, and rooftops instead of soaking into the ground like it would in a natural environment. After running off of these impervious surfaces, stormwater flows through gutters and pipes directly into our local waterways, carrying dirt, fertilizer, trash, oil, grease, metals, and any other substance it comes into contact with along the way.
Polluted runoff has caused thousands of water bodies nationwide to become impaired – meaning that they do not meet state water quality standards. The higher the percentage of an area covered by developed land, the greater the harm to local waters.
This runoff threatens our health and costs our communities money due to flooding damage and lost tourism revenue. As shown by the recent installment of NRDC’s annual beach report, Testing the Waters, stormwater runoff is the largest known source of beach closings and advisory days nationwide. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that polluted urban runoff contributes to 25% of economic losses from flooding, totaling nearly $1 billion every year.
The good news is that we can solve the stormwater problem. In many places, sites that are newly developed or redeveloped are required to build in controls that reduce the amount of runoff pollution they generate. These runoff controls often take the form of beautiful green infrastructure practices like green roofs, rain gardens, and roadside trees, which retain rainwater right where it falls by soaking it up or letting it filter into the ground naturally.
But developments put into place in years past usually have no such controls. Existing developments across the country continue to pollute nearby waters with the stormwater they create unabated.
That’s why our organizations are petitioning the EPA to take action and require developed sites to use practices that reduce the amount of stormwater pollution they generate. Our waters will never be clean and safe until these existing sources of contamination are addressed.
Fortunately, the Clean Water Act empowers the EPA with the authority – and the responsibility – to fix this problem. Known as “residual designation authority,” a provision in the statute directs the agency to require management of runoff from sources of stormwater that contribute to violations of water quality standards. We are asking the EPA to require stormwater management for commercial, industrial, and institutional sites in certain areas: watersheds that are impaired by pollutants like copper, lead, zinc, phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment.
We know from decades of scientific research that sites in these three land use categories consistently create runoff with large amounts of pollutants. That means we know they are contributing to existing local water body impairments. And in turn, they are contributing to problems like contamination of drinking water supplies, beach closures, and fish habitat degradation.
We filed these petitions in three EPA regions: Region 1 (New England), Region 3 (mid-Atlantic), and Region 9 (southwest and California). We chose these regions because they are home to some of the nation’s most historic and threatened waters, and because our organizations call these regions home too. But stormwater pollution is a nationwide problem, and we think that the solutions we’re asking to be applied in these regions can and should be replicated everywhere that runoff is causing our water bodies to become degraded.
Not only will requiring pollution sources to take action make our waters safer and healthier, but it will also help cities and towns that are financially struggling to meet current clean water requirements. Right now, taxpayers are bearing the burden of reducing the impacts of existing stormwater discharges. We believe that polluters should help to share the clean-up costs – it’s only fair. We hope that EPA will grant these petitions without delay so that existing sources of pollution will be held accountable for reducing their impacts on our communities.