Green Groups: Proposed Overhaul Of Stormwater Rules Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Tom Johnson | January 9, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Only 5 percent of NJ waterways meet federal clean water standards, largely due to runoff from developed areas

stormwater runoff
The state is proposing to overhaul one of the most contentious rules adopted by the Christie administration, but critics say it falls short in dealing with the single biggest problem impairing New Jersey’s waters — stormwater runoff.

The proposal, the first major regulation offered by the state Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Phil Murphy, mostly amends rules involving stormwater management, an issue often blamed for increasing the risk of flooding and threatening water quality.

One of the more significant changes — a focus on requiring so-called green infrastructure to better manage stormwater — won praise from virtually all 10 people who spoke at a hearing at DEP headquarters in Trenton yesterday. Green infrastructure aims to mimic the natural water cycle by creating rain gardens, green roofs and permeable pavements to control runoff by allowing it to be absorbed into soil or vegetation.

Rebecca Hammer of the Natural Resources Defense Council called the embrace of green infrastructure a step in the right direction, but added the proposal fails to modify parts of the existing rule that are too lax. “The proposal, in and of itself, does not go far enough,’’ she said, echoing a criticism voiced by other conservation groups.

Henry Gajda of the League of Conservation Voters of New Jersey agreed. “Within these rules, there’s more work to be done,’’ said Gajda, noting the overhaul does not even address the projected $16 billion needed in New Jersey to fix stormwater and pollution problems.

Stormwater utilities

Gajda urged the DEP to work with lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow municipalities to set up stormwater utilities that could impose fees to address so-called “non-point pollution problems. (Non-point pollution refers to waste and other contaminants that flow into waterways from runoff and flooding, not direct discharges permitted by manufacturing plants and wastewater treatment facilities.) The legislation, approved by the Senate, is awaiting action in the Assembly.

Others, such as Jaclyn Rhoads, assistant director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, urged the department to focus on fixing stormwater problems at existing developments and redevelopments.

“The rule has major flaws in it,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It exempts existing development, which is already the largest source of non-point pollution in our state. If we don’t deal with stormwater in developed areas, we’ll never meet clean water standards.’’

He and others also criticized the new rule for eliminating existing requirements that certain contaminants from roofs and sidewalks be controlled under stormwater management programs. “This change will have a negative impact on water quality,’’ said Hammer, of the NRDC.

‘…continuing Christie’s failed policies’

Only about 5 percent of New Jersey’s waters currently comply with all federal clean water standards. Between one-third to a half of those waters are impaired by stormwater runoff, according to Hammer.

The current rule was adopted by the DEP in the summer of 2016 after a protracted battle with the state’s environmental community and Democratic-controlled Legislature. At one point, lawmakers were one vote away from using a rare legislative tool to rescind the rule, but backed off after then DEP Commissioner Bob Martin and Senate President Stephen Sweeney reached a compromise on the issue.

Some environmentalists had hoped the new administration would scrap the Christie rule entirely. “Instead of fixing some of the serious problems with stormwater, the department is continuing Christie’s failed policies,’’ Tittel said.

Mike Pisauro, policy director of the Watershed Institute, was more measured. “This piecemeal approach is missing a large opportunity,’’ he said.