The most pervasive water pollution source in American cities and suburbs is the contaminant-laced rainwater that sloughs off hard surfaces like streets and parking lots after a heavy rain, carrying with it the toxic debris of modern life.
This little-noticed form of pollution kills fish and other aquatic creatures, pollutes drinking-water supplies and scours away streambeds that fish such as salmon need to lay eggs. At least since the 1970s, scientists and engineers have been devising methods to intercept –- or better yet, never generate –- this so-called stormwater.
Yet these methods still are not widely mandated, making stormwater one of the leading reasons the Clean Water Act –- passed into law 40 years ago today -– has failed to meet its goal of making all American waterways fishable and swimmable.
So why are these techniques – part of a new building approach commonly dubbed low-impact development orgreen stormwater infrastructure – not more widely required in the Pacific Northwest when a developer plunks down building plans at City Hall today?
The explanation differs according to the state:
- In Washington, these updated building techniques have been the subject of repeated legal battles. Cities say they are unprepared to handle the costs and need training for their building officials. Developers say they want more flexibility. The requirements currently are set to start becoming mandatory as of mid-2015, although those rules have been delayed several times in the past.
- In Oregon, where environmentalists have pushed for years to require better control of stormwater, legal changes start to take effect in large cities in 2014. A budget-battered state agency that currently has one person assigned to the task ultimately plans to audit individual building projects in more than 50 cities to see if the cities are making sure developers are complying with the Clean Water Act.
- In Idaho, far less urbanized than its sister states in the Northwest, the issue has been less intensively argued and studied. Boise has been taking steps to reduce stormwater pollution and is about to grapple with requiring the tweaked building methods, too, although it likely will be years before they are required elsewhere in the state.
Green infrastructure takes voluntary root
The low-impact building techniques have become increasingly common in the last decade or so and are routinely employed by some builders. That’s especially true where developers can save money because they don’t have to set aside land for pollution-cleaning ponds where the dirty water can be dumped until many pollutants can settle out of the water.
Meanwhile, a handful of Northwest cities – notably Portland and Seattle and a few of their suburbs — have attempted to mandate some form of low-impact development. Others are increasingly considering whether the new building methods should be required.
However, developers in the Northwest largely are not yet legally required to follow these practices.