DEP Signs Off on New Stormwater Runoff Rule — Very Quietly

Tom Johnson | December 4, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Only 5% of NJ’s waterways meet federal clean water standards, the level at which they are deemed safe for the public to swim and fish
Credit: Flickr
Stormwater runoff is the biggest source of pollution in New Jersey’s waterways.

The state Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday quietly signed a controversial new rule that aims to control stormwater runoff — the single biggest source of pollution impairing New Jersey’s waterways.

The proposal, which has drawn fire from most of the state’s most prominent environmental groups as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seeks to overhaul the state stormwater management program, which is designed to control flooding and runoff from streets, parking lots and other paved areas.

Announcing that it had adopted the rule in a one-paragraph statement, the DEP did not make available the details of the regulation so it is unclear what, if any, changes were made from the original proposal. The full rule will be made available upon publication in the New Jersey Register, probably in the next month.

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the rule being proposed by the DEP. If it had not been adopted, the agency would have had to propose the rule again or withdraw it.

Credit: Alisha Goldstein/EPA
Rain gardens allow stormwater to soak into the ground rather than running off into drains and rivers.

As initially proposed, the new rule was criticized for not going far enough in protecting state waterways. But some aspects drew praise from conservationists, particularly provisions focusing on green infrastructure to better manage stormwater. Green infrastructure aims to mimic the natural water cycle by creating rain gardens, green roofs, and permeable pavements to allow runoff to be absorbed into soil or by trees and other vegetation.

Louise Wilson, director of green infrastructure for New Jersey Future, found merit in the proposal. “This change represents an important paradigm shift as the previous rules were not working, and we saw pollution and flooding from stormwater runoff getting worse,’’ Wilson said.

‘Going backwards’

Only 5% of the state’s waterways meet federal clean-water standards, the level at which they are deemed safe for the public to swim and fish. More than one-third of the state’s waters are impaired by runoff — tainted with heavy metals, fertilizers, oils, phosphates, and other contaminants.

“It’s a good first step,’’ Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Watershed Institute, said of the proposal. But among other things, Pisauro said the state needs to set stricter standards for stormwater pollution that allow less pollution to flow from developed areas. He said his group is pleased the agency has initiated a second phase of stakeholder meetings to address gaps in the new rule.

In a letter to the DEP after publication of the proposal, FEMA officials also faulted its provisions, suggesting the new rule fell short of curtailing flooding and averting impacts to water quality. FEMA criticized provisions that eliminate buffer zones around streams and rivers.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also opposed the way the rule had been overhauled.

“Instead of using these rules to clean up our water, we are going backwards when it comes to handling our stormwater,’’ he said. The new rule also fails to properly manage various contaminants in stormwater, including compounds that foster algae growth, total suspended solids, and other pollutants, Tittel added.

The urgency of dealing with the state’s stormwater issues is compounded by global warming, which is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Some environmentalists say the new rule proposal, as drafted, failed to integrate such events into its planning.