The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
Holding Polluters Accountable for Stormwater Runoff
When it rains in cities or suburban areas with lots of roads and rooftops, rainwater is unable to soak into the ground. Instead, it flows along the surface where it picks up pollutants like sediment, chemicals, oil, grease or heavy metals. The runoff then flows into storm drains where it ultimately ends up in nearby rivers, lakes and streams.
From basement backups to beach closures to sewage overflows, polluted runoff can have big costs for communities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that polluted urban runoff contributes to 25 percent of economic losses from flooding, totaling nearly $1 billion every year. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people are estimated to become sick from recreational contact with raw sewage discharges into waters every year.
In particular, large paved areas of commercial and industrial facilities built decades ago are significant contributors of polluted runoff yet are seldom required to control or treat it in ways that really protect our local waters. Taxpayer dollars already support public infrastructure to manage runoff and these existing sites are not doing their fair share.
Studies have consistently demonstrated that these sites accumulate large quantities of pollutants such as copper, lead, zinc, phosphorus and nitrogen. Although little management is required, runoff from these areas carries harmful contaminants into local waters that degrade drinking water supplies, cause beach closures and threaten fish habitat. Large volumes of runoff also contribute to local flooding, shutting down roads and exacerbating basement backups at additional costs to communities and local businesses.
Given that more than half of the hardened surfaces in our urban areas consist of buildings and parking lots (53.9 percent according to the U.S. Geological Survey), it will be practically impossible to attain clean water goals without controlling the runoff that leaves these sites.
Today, American Rivers, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, Blue Water Baltimore/ Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, PennFuture, Potomac Riverkeeper and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper submitted petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that call on the Agency to use its existing authority to better manage runoff from existing commercial, industrial and institutional areas.
These petitions are based on facts we all know—that rainwater running off the pavement and rooftops in these areas pollutes our waters. They call on EPA to carry out the responsibility assigned to it by Congress in 1987, known as residual designation authority, to take steps that will create cleaner waters by reducing polluted runoff and keeping it out of storm sewers and local waterways.
These contributors should be held accountable for their contributions to pollution through runoff and help share the cost of managing their stormwater rather than placing the burden solely on the taxpayer. These sites can share in the cost of solutions to solve the problems they are helping create.
Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.
Last week we received positive news on the border wall's imminent construction in an Arizona wildlife refuge. The Trump administration delayed construction of the wall through about 60 miles of federal wildlife preserves.