This week's take:
Stormwater discussion does not get at heart of problem

Dennis Whigham, ecologist
Published March 15, 2008, The Capital

Everyone agrees that many streams in our county have been damaged by excess runoff, mostly from impervious surfaces, and runoff contributes to problems of the Chesapeake Bay. The ongoing stormwater discussion has focused mostly on approaches to generate funding to cover the costs of repairing the backlog of infrastructure problems. We read little, however, about the real problem - reducing the current amount of runoff and assuring the future development will not add to the problem.

Can we reduce the current volume of runoff and assure that future development does not acerbate the current problem? I believe that we can and offer the following thoughts.

First, we need to look to the future and take measures to assure that new development does not add to the current problem.

To reach this goal, we need to encourage the development community to take the lead in solving this part of the problem. Technologically, methods already exist to keep runoff on the source area but what about the social side of the discussion?

Contrary to the current debate, there should not be a fee on new development. Instead, developers should be required to keep all runoff on the site during construction and the amount of post-construction runoff should be no more than would be discharged from a forested area (the original land use in our area) of equivalent size. This approach to development is based on ecological principles and all of the technological tools to make it work are available today.

If a developer does not meet the performance standards, large fines should be applied immediately and increase daily until the problem is fixed.

This approach has three benefits. First, it eliminates an even greater future runoff problem. Second, it encourages developers to participate in an ecological solution to the problem. Third, developers become a major factor in solving stormwater problems rather than being identified as the chief culprits.

How can we reduce the current amount of runoff so that the eventual cost of restoring our streams and floodplains is reduced?

First, the county needs to do a better job of educating the public to demonstrate that individuals are the source of the problem, that individuals can make a difference, and that the costs of making a difference are relatively small.

Homeowners, businesses and nonprofit organizations should be encouraged to use existing technology to reduce or eliminate runoff from individual sites. In Crofton, as well as other areas in the county, runoff from individual homes, businesses, and nonprofit organizations has been effectively reduced or eliminated at relatively little expense. To encourage more of these individual-based efforts, the county could offer one-time tax benefits.

The county and state also need to be more proactive in reducing runoff problems from existing streets, highways, and parking lots. These publicly-owned resources are major contributors of runoff and techniques are available to minimize runoff from them.

An effective county-state partnership (i.e., something similar to the BayStat program) would reduce runoff and subsequently reduce the projected massive costs of restoring existing infrastructure. An effective county-state program should have two focuses.

First, new construction of roads, streets and parking areas should use the best available technologies to minimized runoff and treat it locally using ecological principles. Second, existing and new technologies should be employed to begin to decrease and process runoff from existing roads, highways and parking lots.

How would the public-owned restorations be financed? The user-pay model used in Western European countries would be ideal. The model is based on the assumption that those who use a resource should pay for its maintenance.

The most effective way to finance these public-projects would be through a levee on gasoline. Everyone who drives on impervious surfaces has a responsibility to protect the Chesapeake Bay and a fee on gasoline would be an equitable way to cover a proportion of the costs of solving the runoff problem. These fees could be used to restore our existing infrastructure as well as assure that new streets, roads, and parking lots do not add to the current problems.

I hope that these comments and suggestions could be incorporated into the current stormwater discussion. There are surely other solutions to our runoff problems but any solution should have two goals.

First, future development should not add to the current problem. Second, we need to be much more proactive in the use of low-cost technologies to deal with the existing runoff problems.

The focus of any efforts to deal with current and future runoff should be to keep and process the water on site. Ultimately the solution to our problem requires that businesses and citizens become part of the solution. To do this, we need to think creatively to find socially acceptable and ecologically meaningful solutions.

Dr. Dennis Whigham lives in Crofton. He works for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater.


(Revised Mar 2008)