Google Plus Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Vimeo RSS

Green vs. greenStormwater management balances environment, cost

By ,
Photo/Amy Spangler
Photo/Amy Spangler

If you're a developer, chances are you've been including more “green infrastructure” for stormwater management in your projects — open areas where the ground can absorb rainwater, thickly planted stream buffers, perhaps even permeable paving materials.

Whatever you've been doing, plan on doing more of it.

Driven by federal and state mandates, municipalities are moving toward ever-more-careful handling of stormwater.

Municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will face especially strict constraints, as the state is asking them to help it meet ambitious targets for reducing bay pollution.

"The situation with the Chesapeake Bay is critical," said James Cowhey, director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

Still, the bay is only one reason for the push for more modern stormwater management, Cowhey and others said.

"We have stormwater problems right in our own backyard," said Harry Campbell, senior scientist at the Pennsylvania office of the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

A stormwater primer

Stormwater problems come in two varieties – volume and quality. Volume problems are the showy ones: When too much rain hits too much impervious surface — buildings, roads, parking lots and the like — storm drains back up, and streets and basements flood.

Quality problems are insidious. Water readily collects contaminants on its journey through a watershed — oily, salty runoff from parking lots and roadways, fertilizer from farms, biological and chemical agents from "point sources" such as factories and sewage treatment plants. When those contaminants reach major bodies of water, they can become concentrated enough over time to do serious harm.

The poster child for water contamination in the mid-Atlantic region is the Chesapeake Bay, where decades of runoff have spawned unchecked algae growth while decimating other marine life. Pennsylvania is a major partner in the Chesapeake Bay Program, a huge ongoing effort to restore the bay to health.

Though agricultural runoff is the largest contributor to bay pollution, urban runoff is significant. The three major pollutants of concern are phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment. Though current estimates may be a little high, they suggest that urban runoff contributes 16 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus and 22 percent of the sediment entering the bay from Pennsylvania, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In Pennsylvania, the modern era of stormwater management began with the passage of Act 167, the state's stormwater law, in 1978. Regulations have grown tighter since then, especially during the past five to 10 years, said Mark Johnson, a principal with RGS Associates, a landscape architects and civil engineering firm based in Brownstown.

Stormwater regulation is handled at the local level, but localities must implement and enforce state and federal mandates.

"There's been a dramatic increase in the paperwork and amount of calculations we have to provide," said Johnson, who serves on the board of Building Industry Association of Lancaster County.

MS4 permits

"MS4" is short for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, a type of permit administered by the state DEP on behalf of the federal government. Municipalities must have them to operate a stormwater drainage system legally.

There are more than 140 such municipalities within the five-county midstate, according to DEP. MS4 permits include six requirements that municipalities must comply with.

This fall, local governments will begin the process of renewing their MS4 permits, which expire in 2013. They must file a "notice of intent" with DEP by Sept. 14, department spokeswoman Amanda Witman said.

To get an MS4 permit, municipalities must show that they have stormwater management programs that cover new construction. The easiest way to do that is to require developers to obtain a state permit known as a Chapter 102 permit, said Andy Zemba, director of the Interstate Waters Office at DEP.

Under a Chapter 102 permit, construction cannot change how stormwater runs off a given piece of property. Meeting that standard is "almost impossible," said Mark Stivers, director of planning for East Hempfield Township.

"It's created quite a difficult situation for townships," he said.

Chapter 102 permits also require projects to have long-term stormwater maintenance plans in place after construction. That has raised concerns among developers that their legal liability may persist for years after they have completed their work and handed off control.

To receive the new MS4 permits, municipalities will have to have a Chesapeake Bay pollutant reduction plan, or PRP, the first time such a requirement has been imposed, Witman said.

Municipalities need not achieve specific numeric reduction targets for pollutants. Rather, they are supposed to implement various "best management practices," BMPs, to manage stormwater. There are many possible BMPs, ranging from better agricultural techniques to abandoned mine reclamation to stream restoration and tree planting.

The state declined to impose quantitative limits on individual municipalities as part of the MS4 permitting, Campbell said. Rather, DEP is asking municipalities to adopt practices "consistent with an improvement that as a whole would reduce urban stormwater sufficiently" to be compatible with overall state goals, he said.

Last month, DEP released county-level goals for reducing the main pollutants contributing to the decline of the Chesapeake Bay. However, "the targets are for planning purposes only, and are not regulatory allocations at the county level," the agency said in a statement.

Watershed Implementation Plans

Water management is a complex issue, and a regional one, yet each municipality in Pennsylvania has its own system of regulation, often scattered across several ordinances.

York County and Lancaster County are working to turn their jurisdictions' patchwork into a more consistent, rational system.

Both counties have created integrated water-management plans. York County has finalized its plan; Lancaster released its plan in draft form last month.

Both plans include model ordinances for local municipalities to adopt.

"The intent was to be as uniform across the county as possible," Cowhey said.

Counties aren't required to create these plans, said Alex Chiaruttini, chairwoman of the environmental practice group at York law firm Stock and Leader. Once they do, however, and DEP approves them, municipalities then are required to bring their ordinances into compliance with the county model, she said.

In York County, municipalities are expected to do so by October, according to Chiaruttini.

The plans don't create new obligations, Chiaruttini said; rather, they codify existing obligations and put them all in a single document.

Municipalities can fine-tune the model ordinance to meet their particular circumstances, Cowhey said.

The challenge

Architects and builders wholeheartedly endorse the goal of ensuring clean water, Johnson said, but some in the industry have concerns over whether regulators are weighing costs versus benefits appropriately.

"Some of what's being proposed, you could accomplish 80 percent of it for half the cost," he said.

Increasingly, municipalities are finding themselves swamped by paperwork, Stivers said. Moreover, he added, overlapping regulations don't always mesh.

"In my opinion, MS4 and Act 167 don't line up," he said.

It's almost impossible to quantify how much stormwater requirements could increase project costs, because projects and sites vary so much, Johnson said.

As a ballpark estimate, however, he suggested the stricter practices could add 10 percent to 20 percent to site design and preparation costs. Those costs typically account for about one-fourth of a project's total cost, he said.

If stormwater planning is done piecemeal, project by project, it will indeed end up costing more, Cowhey said.

To control costs, planners will need to consider stormwater issues regionally, he said. Good projects will incorporate a smart mix of conventional "hard" infrastructure and appropriate "green" practices.

"The answer," he said, "is 'all of the above.'" <

The acronyms of water management

Water management officials use a host of acronyms and abbreviations to talk about the work they do. Here is a sampling of the most common:

BMP: Best Management Practices. Activities that improve water quality, such as stream restoration, wetland restoration, forest buffers and manure control.

MS4: Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System. Municipalities with sewer systems are required to have MS4 permits to operate them.

NPDES: National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. MP4 permits are part of the federal NPDES permitting program, which seeks to limit and control water pollution as authorized by the Clean Water Act.

PRP: Pollution Reduction Plan. Pennsylvania municipalities within the Chesapeake Bay watershed will have to implement PRPs as part of renewing their MS4 permits.

TMDL: Total Maximum Daily Load. Refers to the maximum amount of certain pollutants that jurisdictions may discharge safely into a watershed. Pennsylvania has committed to reaching TMDLs for phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

WIP: Watershed Implementation Plan. Refers to state-level and county-level plans for improving water quality and reducing pollutant discharge in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Source: Pa. Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Also Popular on CPBJ

Write to the Editorial Department at

Leave a Comment


Please note: All comments will be reviewed and may take up to 24 hours to appear on the site.

Post Comment
View Comment Policy