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When our water is polluted, we all pay in one way or another. Damage from urban flooding can raise construction prices and insurance rates. Sediment and pollution laden water takes more money to treat before it can be used for drinking water. Tourism and recreation businesses suffer along with residents when swimming, fishing and boating are curtailed. Shellfish become more expensive and harder to harvest when shellfish beds close. And the list goes on. Because everyone plays a role in creating the pollution in stormwater runoff, we all have a role in cleaning it up.
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Stormwater runoff is naturally occurring water originating as rain, melting snow, or groundwater that is not able to seep into the ground but instead travels across the land surface. There are many reasons why water is unable to infiltrate into the ground. Surfaces altered by human activities, certain types of soil, ground that is already fully saturated from previous rain events, and rain fall intensity can all affect how much water is able to be absorbed into the ground and how much is left on the surface. Runoff then flows to lower areas which are usually a nearby stream, creek, river, lake, ocean or in the case of urbanized areas a storm drain structure.
Stormwater runoff becomes polluted as it flows over the surface of the land and picks up contaminants. Since it isn’t filtered through the ground the runoff carries these contaminates to waterways. Some contaminates, like pesticides, fertilizers, oil and soap, are harmful in any quantity. Others like bacteria and nutrients from pet waste, grass clippings, and leaves can harm receiving waters if in large quantities. Any surface can accumulate these contaminates including lawns and agricultural land but the biggest concern for the City are impervious surfaces. Impervious surfaces are manmade areas that do not allow any infiltration of water through them to the ground below like roads and buildings. These areas are most likely to have a build-up of contaminates in comparison to lawns or other open space in the City.
Nonpoint Source Pollution is a term for polluted runoff and other sources of water pollution that comes from numerous sources which makes it difficult to determine the exact origin. In contrast Point Source Pollution comes from well-defined discharges such as wastewater plant outfalls or industrial sites. These terms originated from the Clean Water Act (CWA) that regulates discharges to waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces the CWA and formed the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program to control and monitor nonpoint source and point source discharges in order to uphold the regulations set forth in the CWA.
Polluted stormwater runoff largely happens anywhere people use or alter the land. Developed areas in general, with their increased runoff, concentrated numbers of people and animals, construction and other activities, are a major contributor to pollution, as are agricultural activities. As such people going about their daily lives are a large source of stormwater pollutants.
Most people are unaware of the impact they have on water quality. Some common examples include over fertilizing lawns, excessive pesticide use, not picking up pet waste, using too much salt to de-ice driveways, letting oil drip out of their vehicles and littering.
Polluted water creates numerous costs to the public and to wildlife. Communities that use surface water for their drinking supply must pay much more to clean up polluted water than communities with uncontaminated water sources.
Polluted water hurts the wildlife in creeks, streams, rivers and lakes. Sediment covers up fish habitats and fertilizers can cause too much algae to grow, which uses up the oxygen and blocks light aquatic plants need to survive. Detergents and chemicals hurt aquatic creatures and can affect reproduction.
The amount of runoff is also a problem. When stormwater falls on hard surfaces like roads, roofs, driveways and parking lots, it cannot seep into the ground, so it runs off to lower areas. Because more water runs off hard surfaces, developed areas can experience local flooding. The high volume of water also causes streams banks to erode. To give you an idea of the difference a hard surface makes, consider the difference between one inch of rain falling onto a meadow and a parking lot. The parking lot sheds 16 times the amount of water that a meadow does.
Preventing pollution from entering waterways is much more affordable and effective than cleaning polluted water! We can prevent pollution and reduce the amount of runoff using Best Management Practices (BMPs).
Best management practices come in many different forms. Educating the public how to prevent stormwater pollution is one type. Laws that require people and businesses involved in earth disturbing activities, like construction and agriculture, to take steps to prevent erosion is another way to prevent stormwater pollution. There are also laws about litter, cleaning up after pets and dumping oil or other substances into storm drains.
In addition to the above actions there are also best management practices that involve how the stormwater is physically managed. These can include the creation of facilities like traditional stormwater ponds or using environmental site design to encourage a more natural drainage pattern.
The 1972 Clean Water Act requires municipalities across the United States to take steps to reduce point source discharges of stormwater runoff into surface waters. In 1990 the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) published stormwater regulations that were separated into two phases. Phase I required large urban municipalities to control pollution and MDE began issuing Phase I permits in 1993. However, the City falls under the second phase, Phase II, which regulates small municipalities, and some state and federal agencies. MDE issued the first Phase II general permit in 2003. The general permit was reissued in late 2018 with more stringent requirements.
The Phase II general permit requires the implementation of six minimum control measures (MCMs) which include:
1. Public Education and Outreach
2. Public Involvement and Participation
3. Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination
4. Construction Site Stormwater Runoff Control
5. Post-Construction Stormwater Management
6. Pollution Prevention and Good Housekeeping
In addition to the above minimum control measures, the 2018 Phase II general permit also includes a requirement to provide treatment for 20% of runoff that is not currently being treated by modern stormwater management practices by 2025.
As the saying goes, “we all live downstream.” Streams and creeks feed into rivers, lakes and the ocean. We all drink water, so we are all affected when our water is polluted. When water treatment costs rise, the price of drinking water goes up. If you like to fish, swim or boat, you may have heard or been affected by advisories warning you not to do those activities in a certain area because of contaminated water or too much algae. Shellfish like clams and oysters cannot be harvested from polluted waters, so anyone that enjoys these foods or makes a living from the shellfish industry is affected. Money made from tourism and water recreation can also be impacted, as are businesses and home flooded by excess stormwater runoff. When we pollute our water, everyone is affected!
The quarterly stormwater fee charged by the City is used to raise funds for construction and maintenance of stormwater infrastructure. Many other municipalities levy this type of fee, sometimes known as a “Rain Tax”, and base their fee on a variety of standards. The City uses one of the most common methods and bases fees on the amount of impervious surfaces, such as roofs and concrete walkways, on a property since these are the types of surfaces that increase stormwater runoff. For residential properties the average percent impervious area was estimated.
Use fertilizers and pesticides in small amounts only when necessary and when no rain is in the immediate forecast. Remember to sweep up any fertilizer that is spilled on hard surfaces like sidewalks and abide by the Maryland Fertilizer Law.
1. Never dump anything down storm drains or in streams. Many storm drains lead directly to streams and are for naturally occurring rain water only.
2. Vegetate or mulch bare spots in your yard to prevent erosion.
3. Compost yard waste if possible. REMEMBER leaves and grass clippings are to be placed in paper bags or up to 35 gallon reusable containers at the curb, not in the street as previously permitted. Yard waste is collected weekly on the same day as your normal trash collection. Doing this keeps leaves out of the gutter, where they can wash into the nearest storm drain.
4. Maintain your vehicle. Oil and other fluid leaks accumulate on the road and are carried by rain water to storm drains. Proper maintenance reduces the chances of leaks.
5. Wash vehicles and equipment on grass or at a car wash. This keeps dirt and detergent from flowing down driveways into the gutter and storm drain.
6. If chemicals such as fertilizer, detergent, or rock salt falls onto walkways or other paved surfaces sweep it up instead of hosing it away. Cleaning spills using a dry method, like putting cat litter on liquids to absorb them and sweeping up the materials, helps keep chemicals from entering the storm drain.
7. If possible, direct downspouts away from paved surfaces and across your lawn; consider installing a rain garden or rain barrel to capture runoff.
8. If you have a septic system, maintain it properly by having it inspected regularly and pumped every three to five years. If it is an older system, be sure it can still handle the volume placed on it today. Never put chemicals into septic systems, they can harm the system and seep into the groundwater.
9. Please don’t litter. Ensure garbage set out for collection is in a container with a closed lid to prevent trash from being blown out by wind or pulled out by scavenging animals.
10. Keep lawn and household chemicals tightly sealed and in a location where rain cannot reach them. Dispose of old or unwanted chemicals at household hazardous waste collections sites or events.
There are many ways to help reduce stormwater pollution by being involved and knowledgeable on the issue. Engage and participate in community stormwater outreach opportunities like stream cleanups and tree plantings in your area. Attend public meetings or watch Channel 99 to stay up to speed on what the City is doing to tackle stormwater issues and ask questions. Report suspected stormwater violations when you spot them. Keep learning about stormwater pollution and spread the word!