Environmental Issues > Water Main Page > All Water Documents

Stormwater Strategies
Community Responses to Runoff Pollution

Back to Chapter 5


Two recent NRDC surveys document that municipalities are making progress addressing stormwater pollution but also demonstrate that there is considerable room for improvement (Table 5.1). The first study conducted in 1998 by NRDC, The Connecticut Fund for the Environment, and Save the Sound surveyed 78 Long Island Sound municipalities to assess local government practices that affect Long Island Sound. [4] The constrained geographic scope of this study allowed for a detailed look at local initiatives and implementation strategies that address water quality issues including stormwater runoff. The survey asked municipalities to indicate the presence of certain stormwater BMPs, but for the most part did not address the extent of the BMP.

The second NRDC survey examined stormwater outfall locations and manage-ment measures in 119 coastal and Great Lakes municipalities that have beaches. [5] NRDC conducted this study as part of its annual assessment of beach closings, Testing the Waters. This study addressed the status of storm sewer outfalls and efforts to mitigate the effects of wet weather flows. The survey asked municipalities which BMPs they employed using a slightly different list then that used in the Long Island Sound survey.

Based on the surveys, it appears that many municipalities have made efforts to reduce stormwater pollution through used oil collection programs and street sweeping. It is interesting that the municipalities around Long Island Sound appear to have far more extensive stormwater programs than municipalities elsewhere. This may be an artifice of the different surveys or a result of extensive advocacy and a greater openness to land use planning in the North-east. Overall, the studies suggest that the vast majority of municipalities are already taking at least some actions that can reduce stormwater pollution. Keep in mind, however, that neither of these studies assessed or rated the effective-ness of these programs at improving water quality.


While the case studies in this report focus primarily on local programs, the states play a critical role in building an institutional framework for addressing storm-water runoff. A strong fabric of collaboration and cooperation among different levels of government helps facilitate effective and efficient storm-water management.

Experts believe that states should primarily perform the broad tasks of establishing expectations, guidance, and oversight and allow for delegation of responsibilities to regional and local levels of government.[9] To achieve this goal, states need to maintain strong oversight and presence to assure proper implementation and ensure consistency across local jurisdictions. States need to also enact the proper legal authority for local governments to implement programs such as stormwater utilities and should set baseline performance standards. The most committed states play a key role in BMP research, technical assistance and technology transfer, education and training, certification programs, and oversight and enforcement.[10] Below are highlights from two effective state efforts that have served as catalysts for local programs -- Wisconsin and Florida.

Wisconsin has a comprehensive permitting program that brings com-munities together to address stormwater runoff pollution on a broad scale.[11] Through this program, permitted municipalities are able to include additional local units of government in their municipal permit programs, if they are physically connected or contribute drainage to streams into which the city's storm sewers drain.[12] While each unit of government develops their own stormwater permit, the program has the end result of addressing stormwater runoff in a collaborative fashion at the regional or watershed level. One element of the program's success is the use of the state's Priority Watershed Program to provide technical assistance, and in many cases grant funds, to the communities developing permits and preparing comprehensive manage-ment plans. In the Milwaukee Priority Watershed, for example, 500 rural landowners and 26 local governments have signed onto the program to protect the Milwaukee River basin's water resources.

Florida began addressing stormwater at the state level in 1979 in response to the rapid, unplanned growth of the 1970s. Florida's Watershed Management Program is a collection of laws and programs integrated either statutorily or through the adoption of regulations by various state, regional, or local agencies. A primary focus of this program is urban stormwater runoff, which is responsible for over half the pollution loadings to Florida waterbodies.[13]

At the state level, Florida has been successful at preventing and treating new sources of stormwater runoff pollution.[14] Keys to this success have_been regulations that require all new development and redevelopment to implement BMPs that meet technology-based performance standards, legisla-tion that protects wetlands, and programs that manage growth. With this success, Florida shifted its focus to cleaning up existing sources and devel-oping a holistic approach that addresses cumulative effects on the watershed level.

With this new focus, the state enacted legislation that coordinated stormwater management at the state, regional, and local level. First, the state granted local governments the legal authority to establish stormwater utilities. Next, the state established five regional water management districts that developed and adopted comprehensive watershed management plans aided by state funds. In 1989, the state outlined an institutional framework for managing stormwater that involved partnerships among the state, the watershed management districts, and local governments, which was revised in 1990. Within this framework, the state sets primary goals and provides guidance and oversight. The Watershed Management Districts administer the stormwater program, which includes setting stormwater pollutant load reduction goals. The local governments serve as the front line of action, determining land use, providing and maintaining infrastructure, and conducting public education and outreach. The state encourages but does not require the local governments to set up a permit system with annual inspections and maintenance requirements. The state also provides incentives for implementing stormwater utilities and financial assistance through demonstration grants. To date, over 80 local governments have implemented stormwater utilities in Florida.[15]

By developing a comprehensive institutional framework that links all levels of governments and places some responsibility on local citizens, these and other states have been able to facilitate better stormwater management. Having the states provide guidance, technical assistance, and funding, as well as establishing a level playing field from which local programs can evolve, creates an environment that is more conducive for local governments to tackle stormwater issues.


In 1996, the Center for Watershed Protection convened the Site Planning Round-table consisting of experts from the planning, design, development, and environ-mental professions and representatives of local governments. Using a con-sensus process, the Roundtable developed 22 model development principles that provide design guidance for economically viable, yet environmentally sensi-tive development. Applying these principles together, planners, developers, and local officials can measurably reduce impervious cover, conserve natural areas, and reduce the impacts of stormwater from new development while at the same time enhancing both the natural environment and community well-being. The Roundtable intended the 22 design principles outlined below to be used as benchmarks to investigate where existing ordinances could be modified, not as national design standards.

    Residential Street and Parking Lots

  1. Design residential street for the minimum required pavement width needed to support travel lanes, on-street parking, and emergency service vehicle access. These widths should be based on traffic volume.

  2. Reduce the total length of residential street by examining alternative street layouts to determine the best option for increasing the number of homes per unit length.

  3. Wherever possible, residential street right-of-way widths should reflect the minimum required to accommodate the travel-way, the sidewalk, and vegetated open channels. Utilities and storm drains should be located within the pavement section of the right-of-way wherever feasible.

  4. Minimize the number of residential street cul-de-sacs and incorporate landscape areas to reduce their impervious cover. The radius of cul-de-sacs should be the minimum required to accommodate emergency and maintenance vehicles. Alternative turnarounds should be considered.

  5. Where density, topography, soils, and slope permit, vegetated open channels should be used in the street right-of-way to convey and treat stormwater runoff.

  6. The required parking ratio governing a particular land use activity should be enforced as both a maximum and a minimum in order to curb excess parking space construction. Existing parking ratios should be reviewed for conformance, taking into account local and national experience to see if lower ratios are warranted and feasible.

  7. Parking codes should be revised to lower parking requirements where mass transit is available or enforceable shared parking arrangements are made.

  8. Reduce the overall imperviousness associated with parking lots by providing compact car spaces, minimizing stall dimensions, incorporating efficient parking lanes, and using pervious materials in the spillover parking areas where possible.

  9. Provide meaningful incentives to encourage structured and shared parking to make it more economically viable.

  10. Wherever possible, provide stormwater treatment for parking lot runoff using bioretention areas, filter strips, and/or other practices that can be integrated into required landscaping areas and traffic islands.

    Lot Development

  11. Advocate open space design development incorporating smaller lot sizes to minimize total impervious area, reduce total construction costs, conserve natural areas, provide community recreational space, and promote watershed protection.

  12. Relax side yard setbacks and allow narrower frontages to reduce total road length in the community and overall site imperviousness. Relax front setback requirements to minimize driveway lengths and reduce overall lot imperviousness.

  13. Promote more flexible design standards for residential subdivision sidewalks. Where practical, consider locating sidewalks on only one side of the street and providing common walkways linking pedestrian area.

  14. Reduce overall lot imperviousness by promoting alternative driveway surfaces and shared driveways that connect two or more homes together.

  15. Clearly specify how community open space will be managed and designate a sustainable legal entity responsible for managing both natural and recreational open space.

  16. Direct rooftop runoff to pervious areas such as yards, open channels, or vegetated areas and avoid routing rooftop runoff to the roadway and the stormwater conveyance system.

    Conservation of Natural Areas

  17. Create a variable width, naturally vegetated buffer system along all perennial streams that also encompasses critical environmental features such as the 100-year floodplain, steep slopes, and freshwater wetlands.

  18. The riparian stream buffer should be preserved or restored with native vegetation. The buffer system should be maintained through the plan review delineation, construction, and post-development stages.

  19. Clearing and grading of forested and native vegetation at a site should be limited to the minimum amount needed to build lots, allow access, and provide fire protection. A fixed portion of any community open space should be managed as protected green space in a consolidated manner.

  20. Conserve trees and other vegetation at each site by planting additional vegetation, clustering tree areas, and promoting the use of native plants. Wherever practical, manage community open space, street right-of-ways, parking lot islands, and other landscaped areas.

  21. Incentives and flexibility in the form of density compensation, buffer averaging, property tax reduction, stormwater credits, and by-right open space development should be encouraged to promote conservation of stream buffers, forests, meadows, and other areas of environmental value. In addition, off-site mitigation consistent with locally adopted watershed plans should be encouraged.

  22. New stormwater outfalls should not discharge unmanaged stormwater into jurisdictional wetlands, sole source aquifers, or sensitive areas.

Reprinted by permission of the Center for Watershed Protection, Better Site Design: A Handbook for Changing Development Rules in Your Community, August, 1998 and Consensus Agreement On Model Development Principles To Protect Our Streams, Lakes, and Wetlands, April 1998.


Across the country, but particularly where water conservation is a concern, municipalities, homeowners, and other groups are realizing the benefits of an alternative gardening/landscaping technique known as xeriscaping™. Instead of turf, xeriscaping focuses on other attractive landscaping methods that utilize low-water-use and drought tolerant plants including native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, perennials, and groundcovers; turf is limited to high traffic areas.[52] Xeriscaping is not a yard full of rocks and cacti. When and where water is needed, efficient irrigation techniques are applied, and in many cases storm-water (such as roof runoff) is harvested for future use. Xeriscaped areas often require less fertilizer and pesticide use, especially where native plants are used. Integrated pest management and similar strategies that promote the use of less chemicals mesh well with the principles of xeriscape. By conserving water and harvesting stormwater, xeriscaping (helps reduce runoff volume and pollutant concentration.

Over the past 15 years, since the concept was coined,[53] xeriscaping has gained a lot of popular interest. In addition to the aesthetic appeal, homeowners continue to realize benefits such as less yard maintenance, reduced water costs, faster home sales, and higher returns from sales. Municipalities are finding that xeriscaping helps extend the life of their water supplies and are beginning to apply the principles to their own properties. Stormwater managers are beginning to realize that xeriscaping( adds the additional benefit of reducing irrigation and stormwater runoff and thus water pollution. Several cities now encourage xeriscaping through public awareness and training programs, demonstration gardens, and incentive programs. [54] Current incentive programs include financial assistance, rebates for using xeriscape techniques, and in some cases requiring a certain amount of new development to be xeriscaped.


    Education and Training

  • Publish a brochure, booklet and/or manual explaining all locally applicable requirements and to the extent possible, consolidate requirements and permits for one-stop permitting.

  • Hold training workshops for contractors and invite the public to them as well.

  • Certify those who pass a test following a comprehensive training workshop.

  • Hold pre-construction meetings and on-site walk-throughs prior to initial site work and adjust the erosion and sediment control (ESC) plan at the construction site.

  • Inspect sites after storms and assess ESC practices.


  • Support county or regional-level enforcement authorities, thus cutting your own costs.

  • Staff, legally empower, fund, train and certify an adequately sized team to enforce requirements and inspect sites.

  • Partner with citizens and "good actor" developers and contractors to watch sites and report violations.

  • Publicize enforcement actions.

  • Require developers to post bonds against potential damages.

  • Require regular maintenance of BMPs, including dredge-out of sediment basins.

    Erosion Prevention

  • Minimize needless clearing and grading using site planning, open space, buffer zones, and other protections.

  • Protect waterways and stabilize drainageways.

  • Phase construction to reduce soil exposure.

  • Immediately cover, revegetate, and stabilize exposed soils with mulch or other means; at most, use a 14-day limit.

  • Prohibit clearing and grading of steep slopes.

  • Employ additional measures for sensitive areas such as buffer zones around wetlands, and special protections and prohibitions depending upon the steep-ness of the slope.

    Sediment Flow Controls

  • Install controls to filter sediments, including silt fences, exit controls, and inlet filters at the perimeter of the site and, on larger sites, throughout the site.

  • Employ advanced sediment settling controls, like well-designed and maintained basins.

Source: NRDC has adapted this list of erosion and sediment control activities from Whitney E. Brown & Deborah S. Caraco, "Muddy Water In -- Muddy Water Out?," Watershed Protection Techniques, vol. 2, no. 3, February 1997, pp. 395400.

All Tags [ View Popular Tags ]:
bottled water
bush administration
children's health
clean water
Clean Water Act
clean water rule
cliamte change
climate change
coal-fired power plants
commercial real estate
conservation and restoration
crop insurance
crop loss
drinking water
energy efficiency
extreme weather
federal crop insurance
fish & fishing
global warming
global warming and health
green infrastructure
green stormwater infrastructure
habitat loss
health effects of pollution
heat waves
hog farms
hydraulic fractring
hydraulic fracturing
livestock farms
low impact development
natural gas
oil shale development
oil shale development in colorado river basin
oil shale impact on water
oil spills
pig farms
polluted runoff
power plants
Rocky Mountains
safe drinking water
safe drinking water pollution
san joaquin
sewage water pollution
stormwater capture
stormwater runoff
United Nations
volumetric pricing
water conservation
water efficiency
water infrastructure
water management
water pollution
Water Pollution
water preparedness
water readiness
water supplies
water supply
water sustainability
water system
water waste
western water
western waters

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

Water on Switchboard

NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.

Recent Water Posts

Save Our Arctic and Atlantic Waters Now
posted by Rhea Suh, 2/4/16
Soil Should Be the Foundation of Food, Water, and Energy Policy
posted by Lara Bryant, 2/1/16
New Guidelines Will Help Make Water Infrastructure Projects More Resilient
posted by Ben Chou, 1/27/16
Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: A Long Cool Drink

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |