For Immediate Release: July 1, 2019
OLYMPIA, Wash. —Today the Department of Ecology re-issued updated 2019 Municipal General Stormwater Clean Water Act Permits (the Permits) for many cities in Western Washington. The Permits set standards for using green infrastructure (or Low Impact Development) solutions for new development and redevelopment projects to prevent dirty stormwater flowing from streets and pavement. The Permits also require permittees to “retrofit” – or tear out existing pavement and install green infrastructure.
Until now, there was no minimum level of effort that permittees had to demonstrate to show compliance with the “retrofit” requirement. With this reissuance, for the first time Ecology has defined how many retrofit projects large cities must do to protect local waterways. Unfortunately, medium cities were not given a minimum requirement.
Polluted stormwater runoff is the number one source of toxic pollution to Puget Sound and surrounding waterways. Urban development can cover as much as ninety percent of land with pavement, and in Seattle, 1 paved acre produces 1 million gallons of stormwater per year. When it rains, the water doesn’t soak into the ground but runs over the surface, collecting pollution and dumping it into our waterways.
Stormwater picks up toxic chemicals found in everyday products such as car brakes and tires, flame retardants in furniture, and roofing materials. Studies show that polluted stormwater can kill coho salmon in as little as three hours. Polluted stormwater can be harmful to human health, drinking water, and shellfish – and toxic contamination is one of the biggest threats facing our Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Low-Impact Development (LID) and Retrofits
It’s far more effective to prevent pollution than to deal with the aftermath. LID means using green infrastructure techniques that allow stormwater to filter into the ground, rather than running over hard surfaces. LID mimics nature’s ability to store rainfall where it lands, which slows the rate of runoff and can be hugely effective at removing pollutants. Permeable concrete, rain gardens, and vegetated buffers along waterways and roadways are proven ways of accomplishing this goal.
In 2008, a state hearings board issued a landmark decision in favor of Puget Soundkeeper and People for Puget Sound requiring a more aggressive approach to reducing polluted runoff. Urban and suburban areas are required to have a stormwater permit under the federal Clean Water Act, because their storm systems discharge polluted runoff into creeks, lakes, rivers and marine waters such as Puget Sound. The next round of Permits in 2012 required permittees to incorporate LID as the preferred and commonly used approach to new development by 2016. In 2017, Soundkeeper and Washington Environmental council developed the Nature’s Scorecard, an accountability tool for measuring how well municipalities throughout Puget Sound are meeting those LID requirements. See the full report online, at naturesscorecard.com.
Now that most municipalities are taking steps to satisfy the Permit’s LID requirements, Ecology is pivoting to retrofits. In August 2018, Ecology stated:
Addressing stormwater impacts from new development and redevelopment at the site and subdivision scale will not adequately address legacy impacts from previous development patterns and practices… It is clear that we cannot protect the state’s waters without also addressing degradation caused by stormwater discharges from existing developed sites. For that reason stormwater programs must include planning and developing policies that address receiving water needs, including development of policy and regulations, and retrofit provisions. [emphasis added].
Problems with the Permits
Ecology worked on the Permits for over two years with science and policy advisors. Washington Environmental Council, Futurewise, and Puget Soundkeeper participated and provided feedback throughout the process. Despite this, the Permits only require that large municipalities perform a small number of retrofits. 78 Puget Sound municipalities still have do not have a minimum number of retrofit projects required to protect water quality from development runoff.
In addition, though Ecology is requiring permittees to do watershed planning to identify big picture stormwater systems solutions, for the 78 medium Puget Sound municipalities, there is no requirement that those plans be implemented in the next five years.
Ecology also missed a chance to close a loophole in the 2019 Permits that allows redevelopment projects to skirt flow control and water quality treatment requirements if their value is less than 50% of the assessed value of the existing site. There is no environmental justification for linking stormwater treatment to the market value of a building and this loophole results in harmful on the ground impacts.
The Permits come into effect August 1. With permittees concerned about funding for retrofits and how Ecology derived the retrofits requirement “point system,” Ecology has suggested that a new stakeholders group process may kick off this fall to evaluate this point system.
“The state has acknowledged that polluted runoff remains the single largest source of toxic pollution for Puget Sound,” said Alyssa Barton, Policy Manager and Executive Coordinator with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, “yet the 2019 Permits take baby steps towards recovery when systemic change is called for. We are disappointed with the lackluster retrofit requirements in the Permits, and the exclusion of 68 cities from several key requirements. We will continue to advocate for stronger water quality protections with Ecology.”
Alyssa Barton, Puget Soundkeeper, (206) 297-7002, Ext 114
Christopher Wierzbicki, Futurewise, (206) 343-0681, Ext 101
Mindy Roberts, Washington Environmental Council (206) 485-0103
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