Stormwater also causes a host of other problems. In over 750 cities around the country, stormwater is carried in the same pipes as sewage from people’s homes and businesses. In dry weather or small storms, the mixture is sent to a sewage treatment plant. However, these ancient systems are designed to overflow when there is too much rain for the plant to handle – dumping a sickening stinky mess into our waterways. Also, because we don’t give stormwater a way to seep into the ground or go back to the air, storms cause a huge volume of water to rush down our streams, tearing them up in the process, and flooding local communities (like it did recently over my favorite bike path in Arlington, Virginia, shown below). You can find examples all over the place, whether it's the Magothy River in Maryland, beaches in Los Angeles County, or Georgia's Chattahoochee River.
Thinking about stormwater pollution is appropriate today, not just because it’s raining, but also because today's the day the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to – but won’t – propose important new rules to curb this source of water pollution. That rule has the potential to significantly reduce polluted runoff by requiring the folks responsible for creating stormwater to design their sites to retain the vast majority of it where it falls.
Alas, this is not EPA's first broken promise on this important rule. NRDC and our partners have been pressing EPA for many years to move forward on it, dating at least as far back as our successful litigation to compel EPA to develop rules limiting pollution from the construction and development industry. Following a court order requiring EPA to act, EPA unfortunately decided to only address the polluted runoff from active construction sites, rather than permanent pollution coming off developed lands. When NRDC and our partners objected to this half measure, EPA pledged to finish the job, saying that it would finalize requirements for stormwater from developed areas by November 2012 (EPA's top water official even wrote me a letter with this commitment [pdf]). That promise was later incorporated into a legal settlement between EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which included a commitment to put out a draft rule for public input by September 2011.
EPA failed to meet that September 2011 proposal date, as well as a re-negotiated December 2011 date and some other short extensions. Eventually, EPA and CBF amended their agreement to give the agency a big chunk of additional time; the revised agreement required a proposed rule by June 10, 2013 and a final rule by December 10, 2014.
Now that EPA has missed today’s deadline, the test of its commitment to addressing these important problems will be how soon the agency will get the proposal out and finalize the improved rules.
In the meantime, what should people concerned with flooding, sewage overflows, and polluted beaches do about this? A few things come to mind.
- First, you can let EPA know that you're tired of waiting for improved stormwater controls, by emailing the agency at OW-Docket@epa.gov (include the identifier EPA-HQ-OW-2009-0817 in your message so that they know it’s about this rule), and telling them to get a proposed rule out post-haste.
- Second, you should think about the latest delay when you hear some members of Congress laughably complain that EPA is engaged in a “rushed” process to issue this rule. Really – they said that.
- Third, you should feel free to chuckle loudly the next time you hear the Republicans in Congress talk about EPA cutting sweetheart “sue and settle” deals with environmental groups. As my colleague John Walke recently detailed, that’s a bogus proposition in any case, but the stormwater rule is a clear example of how environmental organizations and EPA often disagree.
EPA needs to get serious about protecting water quality by issuing a proposed stormwater rule. Otherwise, every time it rains, more and more pollution will foul the waterways where we swim, fish, and boat.