Stormwater Permits: Only a Trickle

It seems ironic that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is barely dribbling out the permits intended to help control flood waters.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued on May 31, almost 11 percent of municipal storm sewer systems have not received permits as of December 2006 despite the fact that the federal application deadline for large communities occurred in 1993 and the deadline for small communities was in 2003.

Once considered a backwater issue, stormwater management has become an important matter to many U.S. cities as a result of the enactment in recent years of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program under the Clean Water Act that addresses stormwater discharges.

Published in 1990, Phase I of the NPDES stormwater regulations pertains to operators of large and medium municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s). Under the Phase I rules, large MS4s that serve a population of 250,000 or more or medium MS4s that serve a population of 100,000 or more, but less than 250,000, are required to obtain NPDES permits and manage their stormwater discharges. In 1999, Phase II regulations were enacted that require certain regulated small MS4s, which serve populations of less than 100,000, and construction sites that disturb 1 to 5 acres, to obtain stormwater management permits. For more information on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) NPDES regulations, go to www.epa.gov/npdes/stormwater.

Stormwater discharges are generated by runoff from land and impenetrable areas, such as paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops, during rainfall and snow events. Under the NPDES program, most stormwater events are considered point sources and therefore require coverage by an NPDES permit. Stormwater events have two main components that municipalities have to address: the increased volume and rate of runoff from impervious surfaces and the concentration of pollutants in the runoff. According to EPA officials, both components are directly related to development in urban areas. Together, these components cause changes in hydrology and water quality that result in a variety of problems, including habitat modification and loss, increased flooding, decreased aquatic biological diversity, and increased sedimentation and erosion.

Typically, cities have several main goals related to stormwater management: reducing pollutant loads, maintaining groundwater recharge and quality, protecting stream channels, and safely conveying extreme floods. As well, effective stormwater management offers a multitude of other possible benefits, including protection of wetlands and aquatic ecosystems, improved quality of receiving water bodies, conservation of water resources, and protection of public health.

In its research, GAO determined that 11 of the 220 bigger urban areas and 809 of the approximately 5,000 smaller communities were not yet permitted as of late 2006. More than half of all state and federal permitting authorities have not issued all of their permits. Even more surprising, the report states that some permitting authorities – including those in Texas, Washington, and EPA Region 6 – have not issued any of their Phase II permits for the smaller communities.

The GAO report pointed out that the delay in issuing municipal separate storm system permits was caused, in part, by legal challenges to both the process of issuing stormwater permits and the conditions of these permits. In addition, GAO found other factors, including budget constraints, have contributed to state and federal delays in issuing stormwater permits.

Another point brought out in the GAO report is that there is limited and inconsistent data being provided by communities. The GAO report recommends that EPA issue new guidance and consider regulatory changes to ensure communities report more consistently on their efforts to reduce stormwater pollution. GAO notes that EPA’s guidance published in January 2007 did instruct community evaluators to identify the total number of sites a municipal system must inspect, but had no requirements for providing detailed data on costs and other related information. To access the GAO’s report, Clean Water: Further Implementation and Better Cost Data Needed to Determine Impact of EPA’s Stormwater Program on Communities (GAO – 07-479), go to www.gao.gov/new.items/d07479.pdf.

In a letter dated May 22, Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA assistant administrator for water, responded to the GAO findings by stating the agency would investigate ways to gather better cost information through communities’ annual reports. Our cities need to take aggressive action now to advance successful stormwater management for both our current needs and for future growth. If strongly promoted by both EPA and U.S. communities, effective programs to control stormwater runoff can have a big impact on the long-term protection of our nation’s watersheds.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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