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Seth Brown talks with BC Water News about how stormwater management regulations have evolved, the challenges to reducing stormwater pollution, and WEF's role in stormwater management.

AUGUST 5, 2014

How has the regulatory landscape evolved regarding stormwater management?
Urban stormwater management was not part of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Stormwater wasn't regulated until the 1987 CWA amendment was formed, and formally came under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System in 1990. The original CWA tackled point source pollution, primarily wastewater and sewage from public and industrial sources. As dischargers began to reduce pollution, and some waterways were still impaired, it became clear that urban runoff was a significant contributor.

The problem has grown as more of the country has become developed. In a 2010 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the EPA, noted that when the EPA was formed in 1970, 85 percent of water quality impairments came from point sources and 15 percent came from non-point sources. As of 2010, those numbers had reversed.

What are the most pressing challenges facing public and private entities tasked with reducing stormwater pollution?
Funding. When the CWA was passed, the federal government mandated secondary treatment of wastewater across the country, and the feds provided about one-third of all public capital investments between the mid-'70s through the late '80s/early '90s through the Construction Grants Program. As of 2008, only 1 percent of the state revolving funds (federal dollars given to states to implement infrastructure programs) went to stormwater management, but new approaches to bundling green infrastructure projects is making SRF a more viable investment avenue for stormwater.

Regulation in the stormwater sector is growing, and local agencies are being asked to pay for virtually all of the costs of meeting these regulations. Lack of funding is compounded by the fact that in most cases there are no ratepayers to turn to, meaning there is no revenue as there is for drinking water and wastewater treatment. Some areas have imposed user-based stormwater fees, but less than 25 percent of the 7,500 stormwater entities in the country have been able to do this. Fees are difficult to implement in a down economy.

Finally, funding for research into stormwater treatment solutions is lacking. We need more data to understand the long-term effectiveness of treatment options. We need more monitoring of existing programs to understand their effectiveness.

How can agencies balance using past history to plan for stormwater management, as climate change might make historical data meaningless?
Great question. It is hard enough to understand how effective current practices are, with multiple approaches being implemented. As I mentioned, we need more research and monitoring to understand what works best in different environments and watersheds.

The good news is that the concept of resiliency has been a big part of the stormwater management conversation. Resiliency means a system can adapt and scale as rainfall totals rise and fall. Practices like low-impact development, stormwater retention, rainwater capture and other green infrastructure components can scale up and scale back.

Resiliency has also been a big part of coastal protection planning. After events like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, those rebuilding are looking at designing coastlines that can absorb future superstorms as well as "normal" wet weather patterns.

What are the most important stormwater policy decisions that you are watching?
The EPA has been working on national stormwater rulemaking for several years driven by a settlement agreement with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and EPA. This was to be the biggest water quality regulation event in a generation. The rulemaking effort was deferred in March 2014, and the EPA is now saying they are going to focus on strengthening existing regulations.

Regulating stormwater is complicated. As pointed out earlier, there are questions about who to regulate, how to measure results, and what management technologies and practices are actually effective. There is also litigation at work about defining pollutants in stormwater Is excessive stormwater flow considered to be pollution or does there have to be evidence of pollution within stormwater flows?

We're watching all of this closely, and participating in the conversation through the Stormwater Committee. We're also looking at legislation around funding. There is debate about whether a stormwater fee is considered a tax at the state or local level, in which case it needs to be voted into law by taxpayers, or a fee that can be added by lawmakers. The outcome will have a big impact on stormwater management funding.

Where do you see promising models of successful stormwater management programs?
Prince George's County, Md., has launched a community-based public-private partnership that creates incentives for large property owners to invest in stormwater reduction on their properties. It's a groundbreaking program on a large scale, and the nation is watching. The county is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, with some of the strictest stormwater regulations and the most aggressive timelines for compliance in the country.

In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Water Department has launched the Stormwater Management Incentive Program (SMIP), which offers rebates for customers large and small that implement stormwater management best practices on their properties. Both Prince George's County and the Philadelphia Water Department are pioneers in stormwater pollution reduction.

How did you get involved in stormwater management and working for WEF?
I was born in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, on World Water Day, so I may have been destined to be in the water industry. I started out in college as an English major but was drawn to engineering and the environment. One of my advisers recommended focusing on stormwater, as it was in the early stages of regulation and was a wide-open field.

I started working in stream restoration, used GIS when it was just introduced, and got a lot of experience in new technology and practices. This led to doing training all over the country and so I got a perspective on stormwater management in several states. I began to get interested in policy and "big picture" ideas around addressing stormwater challenges.

I love working with WEF because it's a mission driven organization, dedicated to clean and safe water around the world. We constantly ask ourselves, "Will this advance our mission?" when making significant decisions. I'm privileged to work with a committee of national leaders from the public and private sectors very passionate, thoughtful, motivated people. It is very rewarding.

 

Seth Brown

Name: Seth Brown

Title: Stormwater Policy and Programs Manager, Water Environment Federation

Background: Brown leads WEF's stormwater program by working with WEF members and others in the stormwater community to identify technical needs in the field and work to develop programming and products to meet these needs.

He engages in partnerships with outside groups on collaborative efforts to further the stormwater profession and topic. He also is involved in tracking federal legislative and potential regulation changes relevant to the stormwater and wet weather community, as well as providing general policy support on water sector issues.

Brown has a bachelor's and a master's in civil engineering, is a licensed professional engineer in the state of Maryland and is pursuing a Ph.D. in civil engineering at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.


© 2014 BROWN AND CALDWELL

 

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