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Opinion: Welcome to the Brave New World of Stormwater

We need to think of stormwater as a resource that supports our streams, lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, not something to be discarded and forgotten

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

Sometimes issues are best addressed by thinking about them in a different way.

Imagine a pipe polluting a stream, river, lake, coastal bay, or ocean. If it came from an industrial or public sewer system, society’s response would be simple — stop the pollution. Both New Jersey and federal laws are very clear. Such pollutant discharges must be regulated to protect water uses such as drinking, aquatic life and recreation.

But if what that pipe isn’t from industry or a sewer plant? And what if it not only discharges pollutants, but also is causing stream erosion in a stream? What if that pipe has badly damaged the aquatic ecosystems of that water body?

Welcome to the ongoing problem of stormwater. For most of our nation’s history, stormwater was a public nuisance to be removed from the land as quickly as possible and sent “away.” I’ve never found this mythical place called “away.” It seems that every “away” is somebody else’s “here” and so problems simply get transferred to others.

Dense urban and suburban development, combined with our average precipitation of roughly 45 inches per year, generates a lot of stormwater, which must go somewhere. A civil engineer colleague calculated that an acre of rooftop receives a million gallons per year in precipitation, on average. In natural areas of New Jersey, very little of that precipitation runs directly into streams. Nearly half goes back into the air (from plants and evaporation), much of the rest goes into the ground, and bit (10 percent to 20 percent) moves to the streams as direct stormwater runoff.

Credit: Daniel J. Van Abs
Mulhockaway Creek, Union Township (prior to restoration project)

Development generally shifts most of the precipitation to stormwater runoff from roofs, parking areas, and streets. Far less returns to the air, since trees and other vegetation are removed. Until recently, still less got into the ground because paving and buildings got in the way. All that additional stormwater runoff was routed to surface waters through many thousands of stormwater pipes. Because most of New Jersey’s development is older, from the 1980s and before, nearly all these pipes have no controls on how quickly and forcefully the stormwater enters streams. The result can be seen across New Jersey. Streams have been gutted by too much stormwater, with erosion of streambeds and banks, destruction of stream habitat, increased downstream flooding, sediment buildup in ponds, lakes and bays, and damage to roads and bridges.

To these impacts we must add pollution, because that stormwater certainly doesn’t enter our waters crystal clear! Stormwater picks up oil, grease, sediment, trash, and animal waste — plus one other major pollutant that most people don’t recognize: heat. Just think of a summer rain, falling on hot pavement and then flowing quickly through the stormwater pipes to hit the streams. The result is thermal shock, where rain can quickly increase stream temperatures.

Our current stormwater standards are much better than the old techniques. New development must ensure no loss in ground water recharge. There are some water-quality controls, and better standards regarding how quickly stormwater reaches the streams. However, the total amount of runoff still increases. A lot. The design is still to send it “away.” And many of the pollutants are still very much a concern. Finally, these standards only came into place in 2004, so nearly all New Jersey development has the older techniques. Almost no improvements have been made since their construction.

Why, then, do we manage stormwater discharges differently than industrial and municipal wastewater discharges? If we are to make significant progress in restoring our surface waters, we must address this question. We have greatly improved wastewater treatment. One result is that far more water bodies are polluted from stormwater and land runoff than by wastewater effluent.

There are some understandable reasons why the focus initially was on the industrial and municipal wastewater discharges. These were highly concentrated sources of pollutants that turned surface water fetid and even poisonous, resulting in fish kills, water-supply pollution, terrible odors, and lost recreational values. Having grown up in the 1960s, I saw (and smelled) the results in my part of the Passaic River Basin. The wastewater discharges also were relatively few, coming from specific factories and larger urban areas, so the workload was feasible for regulators. As mentioned, stormwater discharges number in the thousands; each one may be relatively small but they add up to a major problem.

Finally, the wastewater discharges had owners with money. Industries are required to pay for their treatment plant improvements. Municipal sewage treatment plants have customers who are charged for upgrades, and subsidies have been provided for decades. Stormwater? These systems are owned by municipalities and have no paying customers.

So, we have a problem. Existing stormwater discharges are causing enormous damage to our waters, and yet our regulatory system treats them very differently than other pollutant discharges. Municipalities must manage their stormwater systems somewhat better than in the past, but nobody should expect game-changing improvements in water quality based on existing requirements.

We need to recognize, first and foremost, that these stormwater discharges prevent achievement of the Clean Water Act’s goals of “fishable and swimmable” waters in many areas. We also need to recognize that stormwater systems do indeed have “customers” or at least beneficiaries who have just as much responsibility to protect our waters as those industries and municipal sewer systems. Third, we must acknowledge both that significant water quality improvements can be achieved but that it will take perhaps decades for water quality to reach our goals in all waters, even if we start now.

Fortunately, we have the technology necessary to accomplish much of what is needed. We have improved methods of stormwater management, such as “green infrastructure” that uses plant materials and soils to capture and treat stormwater, mimicking the natural system, instead of sending it straight to those stormwater discharges. We know how to retrofit stormwater basins and discharges to reduce their impacts. We know how to use better stormwater management in redevelopment projects, so that cities can benefit as well. We also have better water models that help us focus on the most cost-effective improvements.

To paraphrase an old musical, “What ain’t we got? We ain’t got change!” Change in two meanings. First, a change in our perception of stormwater runoff. It isn’t benign, it isn’t clean, and it doesn’t go “away.” However, it shouldn’t be seen as wastewater but as a critical part of the water cycle. We need to think of stormwater as an important resource that supports our streams, lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, not something to be discarded and forgotten.

The second type of change is money. We need to see stormwater management as the utility service it truly is, and start taking the necessary steps to better manage stormwater for society’s benefit. That requires having clear targets for the environmental conditions we want to reach, planning the best ways for moving toward those targets, and bringing money to bear on the problem. We have been taking a free ride for too long, never acknowledging that “free” just meant someone else was bearing the costs.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently associate professor of practice for water, society, and environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources and watershed and regional environmental management. With Karen O’Neill, he is co-editor and co-author of “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy” from Rutgers University Press. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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