State caught in crossfire with proposed stormwater control rules

How far should Washington go to rein in the largest source of water pollution fouling Puget Sound and many other water bodies in the state?Friday is the deadline for the public to weigh in on a preliminary proposal by the Washington Ecology Department that is drawing fire from environmentalists as being too lax and from builders as being potentially super-costly. A second, formal public comment period will start this fall.At issue is stormwater, the pollution-laced runoff that streams off the developed landscape after rainstorms, carrying a foul stew of pesticides, toxic metals, fecal matter and other pollutants. Washington is the first state in the nation where a judicial ruling forced state regulators to require builders to employ a series of green-building techniques known as “low-impact development.”Now the Ecology Department has set out to determine just how much building methods will have to be adjusted to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which the state administers. The ruling by the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board requiring the changes says they must be employed “where feasible.”But what does that mean? Does it require that almost every bit of rainwater be soaked up by sponge-like “rain gardens,” porous pavement, vegetated roofs and other “green infrastructure” techniques? Does it mean builders should just do the best they can, given the local terrain they’re building on? Or should developers have to go even further, mostly building up with multi-story construction instead of building out, so that a minimal amount of ground is covered, leaving intact most trees and other plants, along with native soil, to slurp up the stormwater?Opinions vary. Ecology has advanced a tentative set of ideas based on the notion that the full-bore treatment isn’t likely to work everywhere.

Ballard rain gardens: a green solution gone wrong

When Seattle was planning its first extreme-green makeover of a city block, residents competed for the honor. And in 1999, the winning street in the Broadview neighborhood got a gorgeous facelift complete with new sidewalks and verdant roadside rain gardens with shrubs and grasses.But when the city recently tried going green in the Ballard neighborhood, homeowners there felt like they got stuck with the booby prize.The rain gardens installed by the city last summer and fall haven’t worked as planned. The gardens, which look sort of like shallow, sparsely-planted ditches running between the road and sidewalk, fill with water – and stay filled up. Some of the rain gardens drain over the course of hours or days, but some become mini ponds until the city comes to pump out the water.Many of the residents are not pleased. They worry that the swamped gardens are a drowning hazard for young children, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and will lower their property values. There’s even a neighborhood blog calling for their removal. “We feel badly,” said Nancy Ahern, deputy director for utility-systems managementfor Seattle Public Utilities, the department that installed the rain gardens. “It’s been hard on this community.”

InvestigateWest co-hosts stormwater forum that shows civic discourse is still possible

InvestigateWest reached a milestone this week when we co-hosted a large public-policy forum on the State Capitol grounds in Olympia.The subject was stormwater, the polluted rainwater runoff I’ve been writing about for perhaps a decade now, with particular emphasis on its effects on Puget Sound, where it is the largest source of toxics.  For two years running environmentalists have unsuccessfully advanced plans in Olympia to raise money to deal with the problem. More bills are pending in the current legislative session, so it seemed like a logical time to raise the issue’s profile and encourage a frank discussion.That we got. And while we never expected to resolve the entire issue at a lunchtime forum, it did feel like progress to hear all the panelists acknowledge that stormwater is a difficult problem that somehow we are going to have to deal with collectively.Seven legislators and several legislative aides joined environmentalists, business lobbyists and at least three journalists in the audience of 70. Overall it had the tone of a civil discussion with respect for all points of view – the kind of civic discourse often lacking in this age so seemingly dominated by vitriol. Once upon a time, news organizations did more of this kind of thing. The presidential debates of 1956 and 1960 may be the best-known examples. Journalists do still occasionally organize these events, but it seems to me that more of this sort of discussion could be helpful to citizens and policy-makers on all sides of many issues.Co-hosting were Sightline Institute and Washington Policy Center, the two think tanks that have most carefully followed the stormwater story in Washington. I was fortunate to work with Brandon Houskeeper, a policy analyst at WPC, and Lisa Stiffler, journalism fellow at Sightline.

Court backs strong Washington rules to rein in polluted rainwater runoff

In a ruling with statewide implications that hands a victory to environmentalists, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board rejected a system to control polluted rainwater runoff in Clark County that partially shifted the financial burden from developers to the public.The board’s multi-pronged 2-1 decision shot down a special deal cut by the Department of Ecology for Clark County, saying Ecology punted on its responsibilities to rein in the fast-growing pollution source, instead allowing the county so much leeway that it amounts to “an impermissible self-regulatory program” when Ecology is supposed to be in charge. The board’s ruling holds that the resulting system violates the federal Clean Water Act and state law.It’s unclear for now whether the state, Clark County or developers will appeal. The case is focused on rainwater runoff, known as “stormwater,” which is Puget Sound’s largest source of toxic pollutants and is a major factor in the decline of waterways statewide.The pollution starts when raindrops hit hard surfaces – parking lots, roofs, streets, and so forth. That water coalesces into rivulets that run downhill toward the nearest river, lake, stream or bay, picking up pollution that transforms the water into a bouillabaisse of tainted substances including oil, gas, animal excrement, fertilizers and pesticides.The board had previously ruled that southwestern Washington’s Clark County and a handful of other large cities and counties must begin to require a set of building techniques known as “low impact development” to control the polluted rainwater runoff.

Duwamish River: Have a say in cleaning up Seattle’s biggest toxic waste dump

Picture 12,000 dump-truck loads of dirt – enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. This dirt contains some pollution — but no one is really sure how much.Swept downstream each year into Seattle’s biggest toxic-waste site, the Duwamish River – this mountain of dirt looms large as the public gets a chance this week to weigh in on how to clean up the part of the river set to be rehabilitated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.  Photo by Paul Joseph Brown To see more photos of the Duwamish,go to www.ecosystemphoto.comSeattle, King County, The Boeing Co. and the Port of Seattle – all major polluters of the Duwamish over the years – have laid out 11 plans that aim to clean up decades of accumulated toxic goop in the river. To scoop out some of the mess and bury at least some of the rest beneath clean sand, gravel and rock, the pricetags range from spending $230 million over 24 years to expending $1.3 billion over 43 years. The most controversial issues are related: Does the river need to be so clean that people can eat seafood from it regularly? And if so, does that mean polluted rainwater runoff flowing off a massive area of south King County – and bringing with it at least some of those 12,000 truckloads of dirt – must be cleaned up at an even higher price?