Monday, April 27, 2015

Why Washington is a natural stormwater leader

By Sandy Howard, Water Quality Program communications manager
Washington may be famous for its apples, coffee, aerospace, and software, but before any of these came along, we were famous for our rain.

The rain is a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing when it lands on our most-populated areas because it creates polluted stormwater runoff.

It’s a problem local governments are solving under the direction of the state’s municipal stormwater permit program. Our success is building, and it’s making Washington a natural stormwater leader.

Just this month, environmental delegations from Shanghai, China, came to Washington to learn about our stormwater programs. Our Water Quality Program hosted a 12-person delegation from the Shanghai Environmental Protection Bureau & Shanghai Academy of Environmental Sciences. They were here to learn about how Washington manages water quality in areas like stormwater and low-impact development.

We’ve come a long way, baby

Industries have dramatically reduced the pollution coming out of their pipes. Point source pollution is no longer our largest source of water pollution.

Now, our biggest challenge is broad-scale, land-based pollution. This is pollution that comes off the land from how we have developed and use the land.

People-caused, polluted stormwater runoff is our top threat to urban waters.

When we covered the land with hardened surfaces like roads, parking lots, sub-divisions and shopping malls, we restricted its ability to soak up the water and naturally filter out pollution. In addition, when we use many modern products, like plastics and paints, we introduce more chemicals to our environment.

Stormwater pollution sources are so widely distributed and so diverse – they are difficult to manage.
Stormwater settling pond - a common sight in Washington.
What’s positive in Washington is our ingenuity and political will to manage and prevent stormwater pollution. 

The economics of stormwater investments

Since 2006, we have provided more than $200 million in grants to local communities to build stormwater facilities and implement municipal stormwater permits.

This support has resulted in hundreds of new stormwater projects across the state.

Our Stormwater Financial Assistance Program, established in 2013, provides grants that help local governments build stormwater facilities and control sources of stormwater pollution. The money is paying for us to reduce stormwater’s impact in our human-built world.

  • To install best management practices such as bio-retention areas.
  • To build tree filter boxes that collect and clean up the stormwater while watering thirsty trees.
  • To install pervious pavement to treat polluted stormwater.
  • To control sources of stormwater.

What we’re getting for our investments

When we manage our stormwater, we support our economy. Money and jobs stay in Washington. We estimate that our state adds 11 jobs for every $1 million spent on stormwater infrastructure projects.

When we build new buildings, we are using Low Impact Development (LID) techniques.
Instead of piping stormwater away from a site as fast as we can, low impact development mimics the natural cycle. Sending the water back into the ground to achieves multiple benefits.

We are reducing flows and preventing the runoff.  We are improving urban aesthetics. We are keeping water colder and recharging our drinking water aquifers.

As money allows, we are retrofitting existing development to copy this idea. For example, we're adding engineered rain gardens, known as bioretention, to old parking lots.

We're figuring it out, naturally

Washington has become a natural leader in the management of stormwater, in part, because the problem fell right into our lap.
Mother Nature gave us the rain, so we are – by necessity – figuring it out naturally.

We think our visitors from China verified it.

We asked them why they wanted to meet with us. “We are just building our stormwater program,” one of the Shanghai engineers explained. “So we surveyed the U.S. and found Washington state had one of the best stormwater programs in the country. So we wanted to come here.”

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