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Polluted Rain Run-off Poses Threat to Water Systems

October 8, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In a landmark decision, a Washington state pollution board has ruled that flow of polluted storm water into local water systems must be reduced. Lee Hochberg reports on the ruling and controversy over the impact of new home developments on the problem.
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LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: When it rains — which is pretty common in the Northwest — most people look at the sky. Water pollution experts look at the ground.

And what they see disturbs them: chemicals, and motor oil, and herbicides washing from neighborhood streets and yards into creeks and bays.

Half of U.S. water pollution comes from storm water run-off. In Seattle, it’s responsible for more than 70 percent of the zinc and copper that winds up in Puget Sound, heavy metals that are toxic and kill Sockeye, King and Coho salmon, protected under the Endangered Species Act.

CURT CRAWFORD, Storm Water Manager, King County, Washington: Well, this is the typical type of development that we’re seeing now. And there are better ways of doing it.

LEE HOCHBERG: King County’s storm water manager Curt Crawford took us to a typical subdivision outside Seattle. Though it’s only 24 acres, as many as 200,000 gallons of polluted water drain off of it after a normal rainfall.

CURT CRAWFORD: When you clear those trees away and you put in these roads, impervious surface, you put in new roofs, it can be as much as a 300 percent increase in run-off volume.

A ruling against polluted water

LEE HOCHBERG: The group Earthjustice complained the run-off is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act and demanded more regulation. Lawyer Jan Hasselman.

JAN HASSELMAN, Earthjustice: When Congress adopted the Clean Water Act in 1972, it set a very ambitious goal of having all of America's waters fishable and swimmable. We're nowhere near that. We don't build houses in a way that protects clean water. It's a system that doesn't work.

LEE HOCHBERG: Now, in a landmark decision, a Washington state pollution board has ruled that flow of polluted water must be reduced. And to do that, the very way that new homes and neighborhoods are built must be changed.

LINDA PRUITT, Real Estate Developer: So this is a really simple technique that we use to capture the roof water run-off through a downspout system.

LEE HOCHBERG: The ruling requires developers, like Linda Pruitt of suburban Seattle, use low-impact development strategies, or LIDS, on the homes they build, strategies that limit how much rainwater flows off of them.

LINDA PRUITT: We can redirect this water through a pipe that takes the roof water and directs it to the rear of the lot. It bubbles up here and infiltrates forward through this beautiful, ornamental swale, planted with all kinds of thirsty plants, including reeds and grasses and some blueberries.

LEE HOCHBERG: Pruitt, whose company touts itself as being green, implemented the techniques voluntarily because they actually reduced her costs of handling storm water.

Some sidewalks in her development, made of a new form of porous concrete, literally suck up water.

The houses she builds are small. Smaller roofs mean less run-off, and they surround a large communal yard that absorbs water. Garages are tightly grouped around a common driveway.
LINDA PRUITT: We have a smaller footprint, first and foremost. The homes are clustered around beautiful open space and garden areas, rather than on a parking lot with pavement and cars. It results in less impervious surface, less pavement, less sidewalk, less concrete.

Reducing rainwater run-off

LEE HOCHBERG: Other developers are experimenting with roof gardens to absorb rainwater. One Seattle neighborhood, by narrowing streets and planting shrubs, reduced run-off by 99 percent.

CURT CRAWFORD: We can get more run-off into the ground.

LEE HOCHBERG: Storm water manager Crawford showed us a subdivision that's experimenting with other strategies.

CURT CRAWFORD: Normally, you'd have a sidewalk on both sides of the road. Here, what we're doing is draining all of the road over to this one side here, so we can take advantage of this grass line swale here and provide an opportunity for storm water to infiltrate back into the ground.

LEE HOCHBERG: Compost is mixed into soil to increase the water retention of these yards, and a community rain garden captures and absorbs run-off. Yet Crawford thinks even more stringent requirements are needed.

CURT CRAWFORD: We think there's more that needs to be done than what's being done here.

LEE HOCHBERG: He says government could require narrower streets with permeable pavement, taller buildings that cover less of the ground.

CURT CRAWFORD: We need more, and it's probably going to take a stick.

Challenging the ruling

LEE HOCHBERG: But builder Eric Campbell doesn't want to be forced to go farther. He says his new homes have to compete in the marketplace against homes with no such requirements.

ERIC CAMPBELL, Real Estate Developer: When we're selling a home, we are competing with homes that have been built 10, 20, 30 years ago. And if we have various techniques that are, quote, "more green," but the consumer says, "Yes, but, by the way, that rain channel in my backyard reduces the size of my lot by 10 or 20 feet in depth. I want the larger lot. I'm sorry, my kids don't play in green. They can play in the rear yard."

LEE HOCHBERG: And he says it's unfair to put the onus for fixing the storm water problem on new development when so much of the Seattle area is already built up.

ERIC CAMPBELL: What about the 95 percent of the rest of the population who's already had -- or doing really nothing at all to help our environment on storm water? Ninety-five percent of the other homeowners out there who have houses are not being asked to do anything to contribute to the existing problem.

Washington state takes the lead

LEE HOCHBERG: And there's a larger question at issue in the ruling. While Maryland has also mandated these strategies for new development, Washington is the first state to determine they're required under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.

That's the primary federal law governing water pollution. It's been used to regulate identifiable sources, like factories and feedlots, and, for the last 20 years, storm water treatment facilities.

But it's never been used to prescribe something like building design. That worries even the storm water chief of Washington State's Ecology Department, Bill Moore.

BILL MOORE, Washington State Department of Ecology: It's a very significant policy question of how far and how extensive the use of the Clean Water Act is used to go after water quality problems.

Is the Clean Water Act going to now dictate the composition of brakes on your automobiles? Because, clearly, the brakes have got copper and so on.

How far do you use the Clean Water Act to address a storm water problem that cuts across so many parts of our development and our society and our day-to-day life?

LEE HOCHBERG: Earthjustice's Hasselman thinks it's a legitimate use of the Clean Water Act.

JAN HASSELMAN: It says reduce storm water pollution to the maximum extent possible. Those are not empty words. That is a command from Congress reflecting the will of the American people that we do everything within our power to reduce pollution.

So if there is a technique out there that is effective and cost-effective, we should be using it.

LEE HOCHBERG: The new ruling, for now, applies only in larger cities in western Washington. But as it's an interpretation of the federal Clean Water Act, there's a chance it could be required in the other 49 states, as well.