EPA Water Pollution Controls in Nation’s Capital Are Off to a Good Start — Tell Them to Finish the Job

Two weeks ago, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, EPA released a draft stormwater permit for Washington, DC that gives us hope about the future of the District’s waters. This region has some of the dirtiest urban rivers in the country, especially the Anacostia River, which is severely polluted by sediment, nutrients, pathogens, toxins, and trash. Every time it rains, water runs off of impervious surfaces in the District and dumps all of those pollutants into our waterways.

That’s why it’s crucial for EPA to issue a strong permit that will control how much stormwater pollution runs into DC’s rivers and streams. When we first saw the permit draft, we were excited to see certain provisions in there, especially the requirements for “green infrastructure” or “low impact development” controls throughout the District. Not only does green infrastructure clean up our waters, but it also creates jobs and livable, walkable neighborhoods that are good for businesses and our health. That’s the kind of innovative, smart water practice that communities across the country need to be focused on.

The draft permit is a good start. But we’re not sure that it has the teeth it needs to ensure that the District will take adequate steps to solve its water pollution problems. After reading it closely, we’ve identified some areas in which the draft permit needs to be strengthened in order to effectively protect and restore DC’s waters, including:

  • Specific requirements, including numbers and deadlines. Stormwater permits require the permittee – here, the District – to create plans describing how it will reduce stormwater pollution. The draft DC permit contains few specific requirements for what the District must include in those plans. Instead of giving the District the chance to set weak targets for itself, EPA should include specific pollution reduction goals in the permit and set deadlines for DC to meet those goals.
  • A requirement to meet water quality standards. Under the Clean Water Act, states set “water quality standards” for each of their water bodies. That means that the state first designates what it wants each river, stream, or lake to be used for – such as recreation, water supply, or aquatic life – and then sets pollutant limits to protect those designated uses. The draft DC permit gives the District a “free pass” on meeting local water quality standards, as long as it meets the other permit terms. That’s just not good enough. The permit should contain a separate provision specifically requiring DC to fulfill its legal obligations on water quality standards.
  • Better opportunities for public participation. As previously mentioned, stormwater permits require permittees to “fill in the blanks” as to the specifics of their stormwater management strategies in plans that they themselves write. These plans are every bit as important as the permit itself. Especially because the draft DC permit is vague about what the plans must include, it’s critical that the public be able to review and comment on the plans – an opportunity that the draft permit does not currently provide.

A good permit from EPA will help bring about meaningful, measurable strategies to curb stormwater runoff pollution in the District. As currently written, the draft permit does not quite make the grade. While EPA should be encouraged to keep the draft permit’s requirements to plant trees, build green roofs, and manage runoff from the District’s impervious surfaces, it must also be urged to make the important changes mentioned above.

Tell EPA that you want a strong stormwater permit that will clean up the waterways in our nation’s capital. DC needs a permit that reflects the serious commitment of EPA and the District to creating healthy communities and growing our economy.