Region Forward Blog

Managing Multiple Priorities: Balancing growth & development with water quality

Oct 21, 2011


There’s a multi-year multi-billion dollar regional effort underway in metropolitan Washington aimed at improving the quality of life of millions of people. No we’re not talking about Metrorail extension to Dulles.

We’re talking about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and the region’s other vital water bodies including the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. The Chesapeake Bay whose watershed includes six states and covers 65000 square miles is failing to meet federal water quality standards and is being put on what essentially amounts to a “pollution diet” by the EPA.

We’ve mentioned this pollution diet before noting that millions of dollars have already been spent on wastewater treatment plant upgrades which have greatly benefited the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Local officials are expressing concerns about potentially astronomical costs for the stormwater portion of the pollution diet. For example initial cost estimates for stormwater range from $850 million for Fairfax County to more than $1 billion each for Montgomery and Frederick counties. We’re not talking about small change here especially since those figures don’t include the costs needed to achieve further reductions at our region’s wastewater plants.

Stormwater management is a key element in the success of the pollution diet – stormwater accounts for 16% of Nitrogen 32% Phosphorus and 24% of sediment load to the Bay. Stormwater is rain and other water that washes off of properties streets and hard surfaces carrying pollution with it. Stormwater flows into storm drains which feed directly into local streams and ultimately the Bay. In urban areas despite many efforts and programs being implemented nearly all water bodies are impaired due to stormwater pollution.

Stormwater is an extremely important issue especially if you’re interested in land-use transportation and development. As we’ve noted it can also be very expensive. Accordingly because of its huge economic and environmental impacts it’s a major focus for local elected officials.

During a recent webinar of local and state officials about stormwater management and its costs many participants indicated that one of the primary concerns for states and localities related to stormwater is maintaining a balance between development and water quality. Much like our earlier posts on climate change adaptation in the region demonstrated when making development decisions it’s often necessary to think of the second and third order effects of that development. And as was noted by several participants during the webinar many stormwater controls can also have other environmental benefits beyond water quality that also need to be considered when making those decisions.

All development is not equal. Although state and local officials often focus on regulations for new development (which is understandable given its higher-profile nature) overall a much bigger amount of stormwater pollution comes from existing development. Retrofitting existing buildings with elements such as permeable paving bioretention ponds (rain gardens) and green roofs is a key way to lessen stormwater pollution from existing roads parking lots and buildings. On the other hand participants did note that since a lot of redevelopment in this region is occurring in previously blighted areas meeting more stringent stormwater requirements adds another layer of difficulty for developers trying to break into an emerging market.

Solving through innovation. During the webinar representatives from the region’s largest jurisdictions spoke about some of innovative approaches they are taking to reducing stormwater pollution. The diversity of these approaches illustrates how far-reaching the issue is. The District of Columbia for example has proposed a green area ratio requirement in its new zoning regulations. Its recently approved stormwater permit has a requirement to install 350000 square feet of green roofs in the city by 2016. Montgomery County is trying to reduce the burden of increasing stormwater fees by providing incentives to residential commercial and non-profit property owners to install and maintain stormwater controls. Off-site mitigation was discussed by all participants as an important way to lessen stormwater pollution while respecting the aforementioned balance with development needs.

Messaging is fundamental. Both Fairfax and Montgomery Counties discussed the need to better educate the public on the importance of stormwater management. For many people if they think of government’s responsibility for stormwater management at all it is in terms of controlling the volume of runoff especially in the wake of the recent flooding throughout the region. They don’t think about stormwater’s impact on water quality. However as the Fairfax County representative noted during the webinar despite the large overall costs mentioned earlier stormwater fees amount to only a small percentage of household utility costs and the combined impact is vast. In addition to the environmental and quality of life improvements associated with bringing the region’s water bodies “up to code” doing so could also have a huge economic stimulus effect potentially creating thousands of jobs in metropolitan Washington.

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