A sudden cloudburst can be a welcome relief on a blazing hot summer afternoon at the beach. Refreshing. Cleansing.

Or not.

It could mean that storm water cascading from drainpipes into coastal waters is depositing polluted runoff from surrounding parking lots, streets, commercial properties and fertilized residential lawns and gardens. It’s enough to ruin the day for swimmers.

But that’s not the half of it. Scientists say that storm water runoff is the leading cause of degraded water quality.

The stakes are especially high for coastal estuaries — the nursery grounds for dozens of species of finfish and shellfish and the array of aquatic plant life they rely upon for sustenance and shelter.

Studies show that storm water carries sediment, nutrients, organic materials, bacteria, oil and grease, metals and toxic and synthetic chemicals — posing public health threats, economic losses to commercial fisheries and tourism, and damage to aquatic environments.

Rapidly increasing population growth and development in coastal regions could be a source of even more coastal water quality problems in the future if the prediction holds true that by 2010 nearly half of the U.S. population will live near coastal waters.

Tackling storm water runoff pollution is not just a coastal issue, says Walter Clark, North Carolina Sea Grant coastal law and policy specialist.

Municipalities across the state are working to develop effective storm water management plans to protect water resources in every watershed and river basin.

By 2004, the North Carolina General Assembly is expected to adopt permanent rules for implementing the Phase II Storm Water Program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

Phase II requires small municipalities and operators of construction sites from one to five acres to implement storm water management plans.

Phase I, governing larger municipalities, has been in place since 1990, Clark explains.

A National Imperative

“Protecting the nation’s water quality has been an important element under the umbrella of sustainable development since the passage of the federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1972,” says Clark. “Commonly called the Clean Water Act (CWA), this law establishes national standards to protect water quality.”

Clark explains that an early goal of the CWA was the development of a permit program to control discharges entering bodies of water through easily identified sources, such as a pipe or a ditch. Since the 1970s, federal and state mandates have targeted these discharges, called point sources, for pollution controls.

By the late 1980s, attention turned to pollution that enters our waters from more diffuse sources like storm water, snowmelt or atmospheric deposition. In 1987, the CWA was expanded to address nonpoint sources (NPS). These sources remain the focus of today’s efforts to protect water quality.

In 1990 EPA established Phase I of its storm water management program to address runoff from “medium” to “large” municipal storm water systems serving populations of 100,000 or greater. It also targets construction activity disturbing five or more acres of land and several categories of industrial activity.

State flexibility

While the Phase II Storm Water Program is a federal mandate, states have the flexibility to adopt rules to address their particular circumstances, says Greg Jennings, a member of the N.C. Environmental Management Commission and assistant director of the North Carolina Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI).

The state has been operating under a temporary rule since 2002, so local governments and major developers know they will be affected by the permanent rule, Jennings says. Communities and private companies covered under the program must apply for NPDES permits that identify pollution sources and show remedies.

“Roads, ditches and storm drains that collect storm water are considered potential discharge sources that local municipalities will have to address,” Jennings explains.

Developers of new residential communities and commercial sites must show how they will manage and treat storm water on site. Shopping center parking lots can’t drain directly into a watershed. And, erosion must be contained on construction sites to prevent the flow of sediment in its storm water discharge.

In short, communities and developers will be required to employ best management practices (BMPs) as a systems approach to pollution prevention.

“This is not new to coastal communities,” Jennings adds. The 20 counties covered by the Coastal Area Management Act of 1974 are required to develop land-use plans to protect their environmental resources.

With 350 miles of oceanfront land and 4,000 miles of estuarine shoreline, there is no ignoring the fact that land use is tied to water quality. Plans must show measures to control nonpoint source pollution discharges — especially into sensitive shellfish waters.

Ahead of the game

Though ahead of the EPA storm water mandate to some degree, cities like Wilmington are especially challenged because of intense downtown development and urban sprawl. Flooding from Hurricanes Bertha and Fran in 1996 underscored the need to deal with storm water.

With that in mind, the Wilmington City Council adopted an aggressive approach to storm water management in 1997, says David Mayes, director of Wilmington’s Storm Water Services.

After a year, its citizens advisory committee returned to the council with a litany of work that needed to be done — and a recommendation to adopt a utility fee in 1998 to do the job. Since impervious surfaces create runoff, utility fees are calculated accordingly. Currently, single family residences are assessed $4.75 per month, while other property types pay $4.75 per 2,500 square feet of impervious surface.

Revenue goes to a special fund and is used exclusively for storm water services that include maintenance to the city’s storm drainage system and improvement projects, Mayes says.

The fund provides a dedicated source of revenue for drainage projects. Among them is a storm water wetland created at Kerr Avenue to treat runoff from the surrounding watershed — a partnership with the state’s wetland restoration program. More than 150 acres drain through the .75-acre Kerr Avenue wetland, filtering pollutants and settling sediments that previously washed directly into Burnt Mill Creek.

The project has great visibility — an important outcome. “Education is the key,” Mayes says.

Mayes and his colleagues have conducted an impressive public education effort, including quarterly newsletter, Storm Water Watch, to present news of ongoing projects. It also informs citizens of ways they can adopt backyard best management practices to enhance their environment. Storm Water Services also offers hands-on school presentations using “Enviroscape,” a scaled-down watershed model that demonstrates the connection between storm water runoff and water quality.

Research links

Wilmington’s collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington is an important factor in the storm water planning process, Mayes says. Through the Tidal Creeks Program and the Watersheds Project, city and county officials and citizens keep abreast of researchers’ water quality studies. Now, city and county officials are working to adopt universal development regulations that take into account storm water management strategies.

Some area builders and developers included in discussions are attempting to create “green” communities.

The developer of Hewlett’s Run redesigned plans for a 16-acre site. He scrapped the traditional tract pattern, opting to cluster homes to preserve upland wetlands that protect Hewlett’s Creek from storm water runoff.

Does it work? UNC-W’s Larry Cahoon believes so. “This developer maximized vegetation and minimized clearing before the first house was built. He used pervious pavement wherever possible,” recalls Cahoon, a Sea Grant researcher.

The builder also directed the runoff away from the stream and into the natural wetland. Homes are tucked into naturally vegetated settings. Lawns are kept to the minimum to cut down on nutrient loading from fertilizers.

Cahoon gives the developer high grades for controlling runoff and sediment. “If you manage sediment, you manage storm water. If sediment is loose, so is everything else, including nutrients, coliform, etc,” he concludes.

Help for communities

Mayes says no community has to “go it alone” to implement Phase II. There are resources from Sea Grant, universities, river watch programs, the N.C. Coastal Federation, and a long list of state agencies that offer technical assistance.

Soon, North Carolina Sea Grant will have one more resource to help coastal communities and developers implement the EPA Phase II guidelines and ongoing CAMA land-use planning, Clark says.

Sea Grant has received funding from the state’s Division of Water Quality to create a new staff position.

Likely to be based at the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology at Morehead City, the new Sea Grant specialist will work with Clark to consult with local governments and citizens. The position, Clark adds, can be an important link between communities and university and state agency experts. Some educational efforts would include helping to develop low-impact and open-space design strategies to improve water quality and achieve sustainable development goals.

“Finding the balance between growth and environmental protection is a quest that is likely to keep legislators and resource managers busy well into the foreseeable future,” Clark concludes.

This article was published in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Coastwatch.

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