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We’ve Got An Unfunded Federal Mandate To Fix Stormwater, What Now?

April 1, 2019 GMT

As municipalities bump and stumble over how to satisfy the new rules for managing stormwater, and explore ways to pay for it, one thing stands out — there’s no turnkey solution.

Towns across the country will have to come up with highly specific plans, undoubtedly tapping engineers and planners with specific skills to meet the standards of the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems, or MS4, which go into effect in 2023.

The standards order towns to reduce sediment pollution that flows into the Chesapeake Bay by 10 percent, to reduce phosphorus by 5 percent, and nitrogen by 3 percent.

One southeastern county, which gained some credit in the state for showing up first with a comprehensive stormwater management plan, is making the case that a collective effort could be the easiest, most cost-effective way to meet the standards.

“York County ... has been doing quite a bit of work the last few years, and they are being used as a pilot program for stormwater management,” said Mark Gregory, stormwater manager with the Pennsylvania Rural Water Association.

One York County official brushed off the compliment, a clue that even those at the head of the pack are still beleaguered with finding just the right plan.

“I don’t know that we’re ahead of the curve,” John Seitz said chuckling.

He’s a water resources planner for the York County Planning Commission, the agency that took charge of meeting the MS4 standards.

“But, we’re trying to do things the smartest way … the smartest way isn’t necessarily where we’re at,” he said.

The MS4 standards aren’t a direct product of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Rather, they are the result of environmentalists who sued the government over the last few decades accusing regulators for lax enforcement of what’s in the Clean Water Act, said Bernard McGurl, director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association.

While the standards have been published for some time, communities around the country are slowly gearing up to meet them.

For example, earlier last month, Scranton began mulling an annual stormwater fee and whether to establish a stormwater authority to collect it.

McGurl supports one idea already gaining traction, a version of which also is now underway in Luzerne County — towns that meet the criteria as MS4 municipalities, and not all of them do, band together under a single pollution reduction plan or a regional stormwater authority.

In Luzerne County, the Wyoming Valley Sewer Authority assembled a unified plan for 32 participating municipalities. The state Department of Environmental Protection, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcer for MS4 rules, must approve any regional plan that lumps towns together.

The key benefit, Seitz explained, for regionalizing comes when towns share the burden to get the most bang for their buck.

For example, cleaning up Sterry Creek in Jessup, a troubled tributary that delivers heavy sediment from culm heaps to the Lackawanna River, could help the region inch closer to compliance.

Pooling resources, including money from larger towns such as Scranton and Dickson City, could squeeze the most out of those resources and chip away at the collective region’s obligation to reduce pollution.

Such a collaboration could save Scranton on a costly fix within its own borders that might not improve much, but would be necessary for the city to meet its individual obligation.

Reducing pollution

Stormwater pollution sources in Pennsylvania vary by region, but by and large pollution comes from three sources, Gregory said: agriculture, acid mine drainage and impervious surfaces such as parking lots, roads and rooftops.

Letting water infiltrate through the ground happens to be the best way to keep pollutants from reaching the waterways, Seitz explained, but that’s not always possible.

To start, communities should require all new development to be stormwater neutral, meaning the water filters into the ground at the same rate and volume as before.

Physical changes include retrofitting detention ponds, those large basins outside business parks and shopping centers that collect stormwater and let it out slowly.

Seitz said that water should be allowed to filter down into the ground, not just out of a spout that eventually leads to the Susquehanna River — the Chesapeake’s largest tributary.

“Historically, we just worried about the rate of runoff,” he said of how detention basins used to be constructed. “Now we’re worried about the rate and quantity of runoff.”

Communities should strengthen riparian buffers, or the vegetative aprons along stream banks that filter out pollutants where possible, and reconnect waterways to the floodplain.

That last one involves easing stream banks so that when the water runs high, it can spread out over land and soak down.

Those ideas all sound good to McGurl, who added that towns need to beef up street-sweeping programs, especially in the spring to remove salt from the streets and leaf litter collection in the fall.

Specific to the northeast, massive heaps of coal mine waste leak sediment into streams that feed into the Lackawanna River and ultimately the Susquehanna. Some trickling creeks only reach the river under heavy rain.

“The creeks are filled with sediment and silt, and when we do get stormwater running into them, it just washes all this silt into the river,” McGurl said before rattling off a list of problem waterways in Lackawanna County — Grassy Island Creek in Jessup, Eddy Creek in Throop, Keyser Creek in Scranton and Taylor, St. Johns Creek in the Downvalley region, and Racket Brook and Powderly Creek in Carbondale.

“They’re horrible places where these huge mine dumps get eroded, and every time it rains, that material gets eroded into the creeks,” he said, going on to explain that, together with state agency support, a regional stormwater authority would have leverage to make the most difference.

“We would have an opportunity if the municipalities could join together, they could become a strong partner with the (DEP) Bureau of Mine Reclamation,” he said.

Contact the writer:

joconnell@timesshamrock.com 570-348-9131; @jon_oc