Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Stormwater Regulations

The following is a Local View that I have prepared for submittal to The Columbian regarding potential new stormwater regulations. After contacting The Columbian today, I understand that a submittal has already been made and will be published this coming Sunday...

Local View: Vancouver City Council Must Carefully Consider New Stormwater Regulations

Tim Leavitt, Professional Civil Engineer
Vancouver City Council member

The Washington State Department of Ecology (WADOE) has mandated that #1) cities like Vancouver implement new development regulations for managing stormwater runoff for private property, and #2) the city adopt new practices for handling stormwater runoff from.

These new rules from the State may be considered as an ‘unfunded mandate’. When a Federal or State requirement is placed on a local agency (city or county) and that requirement has an associated cost to implement, but the Feds or State don’t provide any supporting money, the new rule is termed an “unfunded mandate”. Then, under threat of violation and sanctions our community is saddled with figuring out how to pay for implementing the new requirement. Seem unfair to us local folks? It is.

City Practices for Stormwater Management

Contrary to the suggestion in the recent Local View (Sunday Columbian; Bertish and Goldberg), new practices by the City to manage runoff from public property is not the primary issue of concern in the community, so let’s discharge of that in short order. Most will agree with the need for the City to improve its own practices for stormwater management. Unfortunately, many roads in the City were constructed long before there was consideration for the environment. In these cases, the rain from a storm washes over the street, carrying toxic pollutants like oils and heavy metals directly into the ground or into waters of Burnt Bridge Creek, the Columbia River, or other surface water bodies. To minimize further damage to our environment, this situation must be corrected. However, this correction will cost money…and a lot of it, contrary to the Sunday Local View. The City is mostly developed already; there is no room now for ‘planning for stormwater filtration, bioswales and low-impact development’ as was suggested.

However, it needs to be made clear that should WADOE continue to mandate the wholesale implementation of the new stormwater rules, the potential costs to the City are significant. In fact, the City of Vancouver joined some 30+ other agencies around the State to ‘discuss’ the legalities of these new rules. To date, WADOE has not budged from their position, suggesting that they’d rather have the matter taken-up in court to resolve. If no progress is made in negotiations, and the court finds in favor of WADOE, you can expect to pay more taxes to support the implementation of these rules.

Development Regulations

The proposed new development regulations are of more pressing concern to property owners, environmentalists and the development community. WADOE developed a set of new stormwater regulations, collectively called the Western Washington Manual, to be used by engineers for designing stormwater facilities. These regulations are based on environmental conditions in the Puget Sound area of our State. Ironically, much of the Puget Sound area is exempted from these new restrictive rules because the existing high density of development.

Simply stated, some of the new rules don’t apply reasonably to our community, and the result is significant negative impact to undeveloped land in many parts of the City.

The ramifications on local environment, land-use and sprawl, and economy may be staggering if the City adopts new rules wholesale from WADOE. Designing stormwater ponds to the new rules will result in much large storm ponds, dramatically higher costs and less return on investment for each individual property. As a consequence, many properties will be rendered useless for development. Commercial and industrial properties will remain barren; resulting is less construction, less availability of services and retail, and fewer jobs. Properties will drop in value. Impact fees and tax revenues to all local and state agencies will diminish.

The new rules do not enhance the quality of stormwater runoff from a private development. Those requirements of the Western Washington Manual are already required by the City. The larger ponds are due to new rules for storage and release of stormwater runoff from development. A larger pond stores more volume of water for a longer period of time. Consequently, there are negative environmental impacts and land-use pressures to consider. Expert biologists and scientists have identified that cool, clean water is an important component of supporting a healthy environment for fish and other aquatic organisms. Lengthy storage of stormwater runoff and eventual discharge to nearby streams will result in incremental temperature increases to waters entering into our creeks and streams, very much in contradiction to the understood conditions for healthy aquatic habitat. You don’t need to be a scientist to come to such a simple and accurate realization.

Furthermore, as land within the urban areas of the city is rendered useless by unnecessarily restrictive stormwater regulations, the pressure will mount to expand urban growth boundaries for larger parcels. Larger properties, located further from urban centers are typically lower valued (or otherwise stated, less expensive to purchase), and can accommodate the larger stormwater facilities needed to comply with the new regulations. The typical afflictions of sprawl will follow: need for more public infrastructure (including, of all things, more public stormwater facilities), more miles on the automobile, more greenhouse gas emissions, etc., etc.

There is an age-old contradiction between urban growth areas and environmental regulations. One issue pressures the other. As environmental regulations increase, resulting in less viable development opportunities near the urban centers, pressure mounts to expand urban growth boundaries to bring in more suitable and larger lands for needed development. The goal of minimizing environmental impact by development is thus defeated as urban sprawl and environmental degradation proceed further from the core of urban centers.

Actions and Decisions

The path toward a reasonable solution to this matter is for the City to adopt a modified version of the Western Washington Manual, such as was done recently by Clark County. After a long public process with opportunity of significant input from the community, the County adopted a modified version of the new regulations that are considered by those of us involved in these matters to be more reasonable and applicable to our area. Ecology isn’t happy about this and has threatened the County with sanctions. However, the County has taken the right steps, completing an exhaustive public process and adopting a regulation that is more practical and still effective for our area. The City should follow suit; any action otherwise would be reckless.

Lastly, either the Governor or the Legislature needs to step-in and address the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach WADOE is taking with cities around the entire State of Washington.

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