D.C.'s New Stormwater Permit a Step Toward Clean Rivers in the Nation's Capital

Today the Environmental Protection Agency is issuing Washington, D.C. a new stormwater permit that has the potential to make our nation’s capital a cleaner, greener city.

Every time it rains, gross stuff like dirt, oil, toxic chemicals, heavy metals, bacteria, and trash wash into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, local streams, and other bodies of water through the city’s separate sewer system.  The permit issued today requires the District to start cleaning up those discharges by preventing polluted runoff from entering the sewer system in the first place.

The permit’s key provision is a requirement for newly developed and redeveloped properties in D.C. to retain 1.2 inches of rainfall on-site through the use of green infrastructure controls like green roofs, rain gardens, and trees planted along streets.  This means that no pollution will run off into the District’s waterways from new or redeveloped buildings or parking lots during 90 percent of rainstorms.

This requirement is a big deal.  It’s one of the strongest requirements we’ve seen in the entire country, and it could make Washington, D.C. into a national leader for green infrastructure. 

Not only that, it could also improve the quality of life for D.C. residents.

That’s because the green infrastructure practices that prevent stormwater pollution and clean up waterways also make cities more beautiful.  Unlike pipes and underground tanks normally used to control stormwater pollution, studies show that green infrastructure can increase property values and attract economic development.  It can also improve residents’ health and wellness, since green neighborhoods encourage people to get out and walk around more.

While the 1.2-inch retention standard for development is great – and we hope to see it replicated or even exceeded in other cities around the country – the District’s new permit does have some weak points.

For one thing, while it requires a portion of existing buildings and paved areas to be retrofitted to retain runoff, that portion is very small.  It falls short of the full-scale restoration that’s necessary to address the pollution problems that plague District water bodies and the Chesapeake Bay.

Most troubling is the fact that the permit leaves out meaningful requirements for the District to meet its own water quality standards for a host of pollutants.  In other words, while the District is required to undertake various practices, it’s not actually required to ensure that the quality of the water in the rivers is good enough.  This leaves the city unaccountable to residents for contributing to conditions that impair our waterways for fishing and swimming.

Ultimately, the permit’s success or failure in cleaning up our waterways will depend on how the District implements it.  We’re going to watch that process closely and work with the District as it moves forward.