Local Water Policy Innovation: A Road Map for Community Based Stormwater Solutions

Over the past forty years, environmental organizations have advanced a simple message to address complex global threats: Act locally. While the slogan imparts the conventional wisdom that global change begins with a series of local acts, it also highlights an often forgotten truth. Many environmental concerns are, in fact, local threats with local solutions. Make no mistake, local environmental threats combine to create regional, national, and international threats. Nevertheless, these threats are born locally, felt locally, and most effectively addressed locally.

Stormwater pollution is a prime example of a local environmental issue. At the most basic level, stormwater pollution begins with a local decision to alter the landscape and disrupt thenatural water cycle. By turning a natural area into a parking lot, rooftop, or lawn, communities alter the area’s hydrology and block natural infiltration.
Over time, these local decisions reach a tipping point where stormwater shifts from being a resource to an environmental threat.

In the U.S., communities are reaching this tipping point at a rapid pace. Due to outdated building designs and failed urban planning, U.S. communities are consuming land at a rate three times their population growth rate. Even worse, new rural development often pulls business from existing commercial areas, leaving vacant downtown storefronts and accelerating the migration to outlying areas. At the current rate we are paving open space, our suburban areas willexpand an additional 68 million acres, roughly the size of the State of Colorado, in the next 25 years. Most of this development will take place in coastal regions which currently house 50% of the US population.

The environmental impacts of these land use patterns, like the economic and social impacts, are felt first in our local communities. Increased impervious surfaces cause increased pollutant loads, water volumes and temperatures in local water bodies. Increased pollution and water temperature cause local algal outbreaks and cloud waters with dangerous toxins and sediment. More and more communities are finding local beaches closed and activities, like swimming and fishing, restricted due to declining aquatic populations and public heath advisories.

Beyond pollution, the increased volume of stormwater is flooding our streets. Our paved surfaces and rooftops generate 16-times more stormwater runoff than the fields they replace, increasing the frequency and severity of flash flooding. In areas that rely on a combined sewer systems, this flash flooding often causes combined sewer overflows (CSOs), dumping tons of raw sewage into vital fresh water bodies, like the Great Lakes.

Ironically, our paved surfaces can also cause streams to run dry at other points of the year. Impervious surfaces block the land’s ability to recharge groundwater. In the Great Lakes region, sixty-three percent of the water in rivers and streams comes from groundwater. As a result, one-third of Lake Michigan’s water ultimately comes from groundwater discharges to area rivers and streams. As groundwater supplies decrease, rivers dry up and lake levels drop in drier seasons.

By blocking infiltration, we are also reducing our supply of clean drinking water. Due tosprawling impervious surfaces, many urban areas now lose between 300 and 690 billion gallons of water annually that would otherwise be filtered back into their drinking water supply. With less water in shallow aquifers, communities are starting to rely on deep aquifers that may take decades or centuries to recharge.

Ultimately, these local impacts combine to create national impacts. Currently, urban stormwater is the second leading cause of water pollution in the United States. Local stormwater pollution is to blame for eighteen percent of the impaired lakes and fifty-five percent of the impaired estuaries nationwide. Given this national impact, federal and state governments are attempting to use Clean Water Act (CWA) permits to achieve better land use decisions.

However, local environmental protection ultimately relies on local solutions. Regardless of federal laws, our local and regional water quality will not be protected unless we take action at home.