Downstream Founder Speaks Out on Virginia Stormwater Regulations

The Winchester Star’s July 1 article, “Stormwater rule changes leave bad taste,” about the new stormwater regulations being proposed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) contained some information that was not only revealing but saddening as well.

There was an odd perspective to the article. Although it’s true that the strategy to reduce nutrient loads entering the Chesapeake Bay has had limited success, there has been an almost 50% reduction in agricultural pollutants entering the Bay. On the other hand, urban stormwater runoff is an aspect of watershed contamination that has not only seen no improvement, but has risen substantially. Urban stormwater runoff is natural precipitation that does not completely infiltrate the ground but rather flows off the land, usually after coming into contact with impervious surfaces such as roofs, roads, sidewalks, and parking lots. As the water flows over these surfaces it picks up whatever contaminants have collected on them, like oil, heavy metals, and other hazardous materials. This kind of pollution is called non-point source pollution, because the exact source is impossible to determine. According to DCR figures, although the population of the Bay watershed area has increased by 8% over the last decade the amount of impervious surface has grown by 41%—considerably increasing the amount of contamination from non-point sources.

The main thrust of the new stormwater regulations is to restrict the amount of phosphorous in runoff to 0.28 pounds per acre from a previous standard of 0.45, a reduction of 37%. The reason for tightening this restriction is not, as the article suggests, because it is a key ingredient in many fertilizers but because modeling performed by numerous different regional and federal agencies has shown it to be a leading indicator for other pollutants. While some may state that there is no real science to support this new restriction, this intense modeling suggests otherwise. Furthermore, these new regulations cannot be characterized as an unfunded mandate because DCR has increased the fees required for stormwater mitigation permits to help fund enforcement at both the state and local levels. If we don’t come up with our own plan to mitigate the pollution in our impaired waterways, the Federal Government through the EPA will come in and do it for us. Now that will be an unfunded mandate worth complaining about.

This article, and other ones I‘ve recently seen, suggests that many of the officials of Virginia’s highly urbanized counties (like Albemarle, Frederick, Arlington etc.) are complaining that DCR’s new standards are way too stringent. This business-as-usual, head-in-the sand reaction that one typically sees from these localities is what I found so saddening. Wouldn’t it be great if the officials in these counties lost the recalcitrant attitude, and decided to do something proactive about the situation? They are quick to blame others, to say that the problem is with agriculture, and not with the non-point source pollution they have ushered in. While agriculture certainly has a long way to go, some improvement has been made and quantified. What’s required is an equal effort to mitigate non-point source pollution; everyone has to do their fair share. It’s unfortunate, but expensive solutions are necessary across the spectrum. What if the powers that be in these other counties agreed to raise their own stormwater runoff standards and truly improved the quality of the water used by their own citizens? Wouldn’t that be a new and wonderful course of action?

As Chair of The Clarke County Planning Commission, I challenge them to take the responsible path.

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