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Urban Stormwater Solutions
These case studies show new ways cities, developers and others are reducing stormwater pollution.

Over the past century, runaway development has paved over forests, fields and wetlands across the country. Along with urbanization has come the problem of "urban stormwater" -- rainwater that washes over dirty surfaces such as roads, buildings and lawns and becomes a major source of pollution in rivers, lakes and bays. While much has been achieved in the past 30 years to limit pollution from easily identifiable sources, such as factories, efforts to control pollution from these diffuse sources are still in their infancy. Although the Clean Water Act mandates stormwater control, local governments have been slow to respond.

The following summaries of longer case studies, drawn from NRDC's 1999 report Stormwater Strategies, illustrate how cities, developers, corporations and schools are beginning to find new ways to reduce stormwater pollution. Strategies include preserving undeveloped land, educating the public on ways to prevent pollution, constructing wetlands and ponds, and establishing special maintenance routines for municipal vehicles, parks, and roads.

Land Preservation: Staten Island, New York

In the 1990s, New York City began the process of acquiring a large swath of undeveloped land called the Staten Island Bluebelt, in the New York City borough of Staten Island. The Bluebelt is a chain of streams, ponds, and wetlands surrounded by urban neighborhoods. By preserving it, the city will be able to use its natural systems to catch stormwater runoff from adjacent paved areas. After the water passes through settling ponds, sand filters, and constructed wetlands, it will pass into the natural wetlands. Wetlands and stream buffers are an effective way of controlling stormwater since they act as filters, trapping sediment, metals and organic chemicals before these pollutants reach waterways.

As a result of the land set-aside, Staten Island is realizing $50 million in initial savings, can forego construction of a traditional subsurface storm sewer system, and will not have to shoulder ongoing maintenance costs. Also, use of such natural methods cleans the runoff, preventing discharge of tons of harmful pollutants. And in addition to the cost savings and runoff reduction improvements, the Bluebelt provides recreational opportunities and a wildlife refuge for area residents, as well as increased property values.

Public Education: Denver, Colorado

The students of Oberon Middle School, near Denver, obtained federal funding through the Denver Urban Resources Partnership to turn a vacant school parking lot into a wetland that recycles water for irrigation and provides hands-on learning opportunities. The seventh- and eighth-graders set three goals for the project: 1) restore the site using native vegetation; 2) create an environment for future outdoor education; and 3) collect and treat irrigation and stormwater runoff from the school grounds.

In the first year, students collected baseline data on plants, animals, and soils, and developed a plan for managing runoff. With the help of the partnership, students were able to construct the outdoor classroom and runoff treatment system within one school year, achieving all three of their goals.

Community Participation: Texas

In the country, decaying leaves, branches, and other organic matter provide nutrients for living plants and a ground covering that controls erosion. But in cities, homeowners break this cycle by bagging their garden trimmings and sending them to landfills. Or garden and lawn waste may end up in stormwater runoff, increasing oxygen demand in the waters they're washed into.

In Texas alone, over five million tons of yard trimmings and other organic materials are sent to landfills every year, taking up more than 15 million cubic yards of space and costing more than $150 million. To replace the nutrients sent to the landfill, homeowners spend money on chemical fertilizers, which are often carried in runoff to contaminate lakes and streams. The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission saw composting as one important solution to the problems caused by disposal of yard waste. It established a program to increase composting and decrease use of chemical fertilizers by educating both individual citizens and waste-control professionals.

The commission selected three communities -- Wichita Falls, Corpus Christi, and Garland -- to serve as host cities for its "master composter" training program. The program recruited local citizens who volunteered to become knowledgeable about the science and practice of composting. In 1995, 116 master composters were trained; these volunteers taught at least 3,951 other individuals about composting through workshops and demonstration sites.

Innovative Development: Murray City, Utah

Murray City began to plan a municipal golf course in 1973. At the same time, the Utah Department of Transportation was planning a new stretch of freeway. Looking for dirt to add contours to the flat farmland for the golf course, the city struck a deal for the course to receive 550,000 cubic yards of freeway dirt at no cost. In return, the Department of Transportation could use the golf course to control stormwater runoff from 4.5 miles of road. The project saved Murray City approximately $1 million in construction costs, and saved the department $300,000 in land acquisition and stormwater piping.

The stormwater control system on the golf course consists of a series of settling ponds and wetlands integrated into the design of the course. Freeway runoff and subsurface waters are conveyed to a distilling basin, which removes most of the associated salt, sediment, oil, grease, dissolved metals, and trash. Water is then circulated through streams and wetlands to four additional ponds for further treatment.

The ponds and wetlands double as water hazards and enhance the beauty of the golf course while providing wildlife habitat, and water collected in the ponds is also used to irrigate the course's 135 acres, saving Murray City an additional $100,000 each year. The project provided seven acres of flood retention and about 11 acres of wetlands; it is now a key part of a larger effort to restore the nearby Jordan River and create a recreational greenbelt system.

Eradicating Illegal Dumping: Huron River, Michigan

In the early 1980s, in a creek on the Huron River where children regularly played, researchers found levels of fecal coliform bacteria 1,000 times higher than what authorities consider safe. Public concern peaked, and studies showed that stormwater drains were the main source of contamination. Testing found 19 improper sanitary connections to the storm sewers leading to the creek. Once these connections were removed, fecal coliform in the creek fell to safe levels again.

The success of this pilot project spawned a larger, cooperative program among several communities in the watershed, including Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, which established the Huron River Pollution Abatement Project in 1987. The program's main focus was eliminating improper discharges into the storm drains. Crews visited industrial, commercial, and residential properties and asked permission to flush fluorescent dye through toilets or drains, then monitored nearby sanitary and storm drain lines to see where the dye came out. (While it was not mandatory to agree to inspections, the county got a high participation rate by promoting cooperation as a goodwill gesture to the community.)

From 1987 through 1992, the program dye-tested over 3,800 facilities, of which more than 450 had improper connections to storm sewers; after action was taken to remedy the problem, fecal coliform levels in the Huron dropped by approximately 75 percent in three years.

What Constitutes a Successful Stormwater Program

NRDC's research on the 100 case studies from which these samples are drawn indicates that successful stormwater control programs contain the following elements:

  • Advance planning and setting clear goals;
  • Encouraging and facilitating broad government and community participation;
  • Prioritizing pollution prevention over treatment of polluted runoff;
  • Establishing and maintaining accountability of partners and citizens;
  • Creating a stable funding source such as a stormwater utility;
  • Tailoring strategies to local needs and problems;
  • Including education, public participation, monitoring, and enforcement components;
  • Evaluating and improving programs as they evolve;
  • Recognizing and publicizing the quality-of-life benefits of parks, ponds, and clean streets.

Related NRDC Pages
Stormwater Strategies

Related Websites
Center for Watershed Protection

last revised 1.2.01

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