DC Poised to Clean Up its Rivers, Bay with Smarter Water Practices

On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day – an occasion that gave way to historic environmental progress like the creation of the Clean Water Act – we’re excited about news that a new initiative will help control water pollution in our nation’s capital, with impacts that will reach the entire Chesapeake Bay.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just released a draft of a new stormwater permit for Washington, DC, incorporating smarter water practices that hold promise for making great strides toward cleaning up the District’s rivers and waterways.  EPA is billing the permit as the “next generation” of stormwater controls, and it could set a model for the rest of the country to follow.

It may not sound like it, but stormwater permits are actually extremely important to clean up our nation’s waters because they help control the pollution that stormwater runoff carries through a sewer systems and into waterways.  This new permit looks like a big improvement over previous stormwater controls, issued in 2004, because it requires the District to take several new progressive steps that help keep polluted stormwater out of our rivers and streams, including investments in so-called “green infrastructure” techniques on land that make a real difference for our water.

In DC, 38.6% of the land area can be characterized as impervious, meaning water can’t pass through it.  This means that falling rain doesn’t find its way back into the ground the way it would in a natural setting.  Instead, rain hits the city surfaces – parking lots, buildings, roads – and runs off.  Think about the street outside your house:  Is there trash in the gutters?  Oil on the street?  Dirt?  I’m guessing yes.  When it rains, stormwater runoff carries all that stuff into storm drains and ultimately into rivers and other waterways. 

In fact, stormwater is the only growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.  It’s a large source of the pollutants that cause “dead zones” in the Bay.  And it’s a major reason why 34 miles of rivers and streams in and around DC do not support swimming or aquatic life.

Fortunately, we know what to do about it. We have solutions. And that’s where this new stormwater permit comes in.

The draft permit for DC’s separate sewer system, released this morning, has three provisions that are some of the strongest and most progressive stormwater protections in the Bay watershed:

  • A requirement that the District undertake a certain number of “green infrastructure” projects.  The best (and most cost-effective) way to deal with stormwater is to mimic what happens in nature, by putting that water back into the ground where it falls, rather than funneling it into drains and pipes.   This is achieved through “green infrastructure” measures like rain gardens, green roofs, tree cover, permeable pavement, rain barrels, or anything else that keeps rainwater from running off into our sewers.  Not only is this a very effective way to deal with stormwater pollution, but increasing vegetation and green space improves air quality, reduces energy costs, and increases property values.  The new permit will require DC to use these green infrastructure practices, such as planting 4,150 new trees every year and installing 350,000 square feet of green roofs on District properties.
  • Enforceable limits on pollutants entering the District’s waterways.  Under the Clean Water Act, maximum daily pollutant limits are set for each polluted body of water.  Stormwater permits require the permittee (in this case, the District) to make a plan describing how it will meet that daily limit for each pollutant.  Under the old permit, the District was required to have a plan, but it was not legally obligated to implement it.  The new permit requires DC to set specific dates by which it will meet pollution limits and describe how its chosen methods will ensure the targets are met.  Moreover, the elements of DC’s plan will become enforceable terms of the permit after approval by EPA.
  • New stormwater standards for new development and redevelopment in the District.  The new permit will require developers, regardless of whether they are building on a green space or redeveloping existing construction, to include stormwater management techniques that control the majority of stormwater on-site, instead of allowing it to enter our waterways.  For every 24 hours of rain, developers will have to make sure their properties retain 1.2 inches of rainfall.  That number was chosen because all but the very biggest storms in DC will generate that amount of rain or less.

These kinds of smart water practices are exactly what NRDC and other leading experts have been encouraging communities nationwide to turn to in order to clean up our waterways. These three provisions alone represent immense progress away from the tank-and-pipe systems of the past that are failing us today, and as the Washington Post is saying, they signify “a major shift in thinking for a city covered in glass, concrete and shingles.”  We hope that local government officials will support the inclusion of these provisions in the final permit.

And while the new permit is a step in the right direction, there’s at least one way we think EPA can make it even stronger to solidify the District’s position as a model for the rest of the country:

  • More certainty in the permit’s public participation requirements.  The MS4 permit written by EPA sets various targets that the District of Columbia is expected to meet.  The District then writes plans detailing how the District will hit those targets.  Those plans are every bit as important as the permit itself.  The draft permit implies that the public will be given notice of the plans and the opportunity to comment on them.  But an implication is not good enough.  The permit must be crystal clear that the District of Columbia is mandated to solicit and consider public comment on its stormwater management plans.

Overall, DC’s proposed new water pollution controls and investment in smarter water practices seem to be a big step forward.  Moreover, this progress is particularly significant because of where it’s happening. In every other state in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the state government drafts the stormwater permit and submits it to EPA for approval. However, for the District of Columbia, EPA writes the permit directly. This means DC’s new stormwater permit could set a precedent for the kinds of requirements the agency will be looking for when other states submit their own plans. We look forward to examining the draft permit in greater detail over the coming weeks, and to working with EPA to make DC a leader in smart clean water practices for 21st century pollution control in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and nationwide.

This blog was co-written by NRDC Water Program Fellow Cori Lombard.