EPA misses another opportunity to reduce stormwater pollution

Trash overflow in Cherokee Park, Louisville, KY | © W.Marsh (flickr)

Every time it rains or winter snows melt, the water you see pooling up along streets and sidewalks carries bits of road salt, oil, gravel, and other pollution into local streams and rivers.

With my colleagues here at American Rivers we’ve helped communities build green infrastructure projects that keep runoff out of our waters and improve our neighborhoods. We’ve worked with experts and academics to calculate the economic benefits of green infrastructure and the cost of stormwater pollution.  And we’ve tried to get EPA to do much more to address this problem.

Last summer, with partners including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Conservation Law Foundation and several local water advocates, we filed a series of formal petitions with three EPA regions in New England, the Mid-Atlantic and Far West. These petitions asked that EPA use its existing authority under the Clean Water Act to require management of stormwater runoff from already existing sites that aren’t currently required to manage that runoff. This is known as “residual designation authority,” or RDA.

Each petition uses existing data and studies collected by EPA to prove that the stormwater pollution that runs off of existing commercial, industrial and institutional properties causes water quality problems. There’s abundant data that makes this connection which is publicly available through the National Stormwater Quality Database. The petitions use this data that was gathered over decades from across the country by agencies and academic researchers; data which show that these types of properties contribute pollutants to our streams, creeks and rivers; and data which document the waters impaired by these same pollutants.

Building on this information, the petitions asked EPA to do what the Clean Water Act requires – direct the owners of these discharging properties to get permits and take responsible, cost-effective steps to reduce the amount of stormwater they create.  Without these permits, the shopping centers, office parks, and warehouse hubs that we’ve already built will continue to be permanent sources of flooding and water pollution. Even more, they will continue to burden cities and towns with the cost of managing the runoff they send to local storm sewers.

Last week we learned that EPA offices in each Region declined to grant these petitions, missing a critical opportunity to protect clean water. Collectively, we are extremely disappointed in the lack of leadership this decision betrays. At a time when the costs of stormwater management are rising for many local governments and stormwater continues to be a growing water quality problem across the country, a positive EPA response would have marked a commitment to rein in runoff, and increase accountability for property owners who currently evade responsibility for the runoff they create. By refusing to grant our petitions, EPA continues to show a strong aversion to using the legal and regulatory tools that Congress provided to fairly and effectively protect our communities.

Denials in both Region Three and Region Nine demonstrate that the EPA must do more to protect rivers, lakes, and streams from polluted runoff. In their responses, both regions claim that existing stormwater permits and programs were already strong enough to deal with this problem. Unfortunately, even the best permits in these Regions do little if anything to reduce runoff from properties that were built up years ago, or which send runoff directly to local streams. In fact, a panel of experts convened by the National Research Council reached the same conclusion, finding that the “EPA’s current approach to regulating stormwater is unlikely to… adequately control stormwater’s contribution to waterbody impairment.”

EPA Region One’s decision to neither grant nor deny our petition is likewise disappointing. However, we are heartened by its decision to further evaluate the use of residual designation authority and to use this tool in a focused management approach. Already there are strong, successful examples of watersheds in New England where the RDA approach has made a difference, and will result in cleaner, healthier waters.  Hopefully, Region One will follow through on its stated intention, and make additional RDA designations that restore more waters for New Englanders.

American Rivers and our partners will also continue to evaluate how to best use the RDA tool, and how to respond to EPA’s recent decisions. Despite the Agency’s decision to the contrary, we maintain that the decades of runoff monitoring results that make up the National Stormwater Quality Database provide more than enough information to demonstrate a clear connection between these sources and the resulting water pollution problems. We remain committed to pushing EPA and state agencies to use better regulations and safeguards to protect our communities and waters from runoff.  In the absence of federal leadership, we’ll keep working with local governments and stormwater agencies to pioneer homegrown solutions to this pressing problem. EPA’s replies to our petitions are not the closing of any door, but instead are another step toward fully protected streams, rivers, and neighborhoods.