Helping Towns to Write Stormwater By-laws

The Watershed Association is helping local communities tackle strict new EPA guidelines for municipal stormwater management.

Ever since the federal Clean Water Act was enacted in the 1970s, the water in Neponset and other Massachusetts rivers waterways has gotten much cleaner. This is due mainly to two factors – strict water discharge permitting for factories and businesses, and elimination of the raw sewage that was once discharged into the Neponset by local sewer systems.

But there’s one major stormwater pollution problem in the watershed that hasn’t gone away: “stormwater runoff.” Stormwater runoff is simply rainwater that picks up pollutants as it washes off our sidewalks, roads, parking lots and even lawns, taking bacteria, phosphorus fertilizers, heavy metals, oil, and gasoline along with it. Stormwater runoff may have a small amount of time to settle, but other than that, it discharges without any treatment directly into our waters. After any significant rain event, violations of state water quality standards, especially bacteria, always spike.

stormwater runnoff at DCR ponkapoag golf courseBack in 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set stormwater management standards for towns with municipal storm drains, but it hasn’t been strongly enforced and has made little difference. But earlier this year, a much stricter, more specific set of requirements was proposed by EPA, and most towns in Massachusetts have recognized that it will be a challenge to comply. The new rules will, among other things, require towns to adopt local ordinances or bylaws and to issue stormwater permits to new development and redevelopment projects above a certain size, even outside of wetlands.

While, in theory, this shouldn’t be so tough to implement, the folks who run the storm drain systems in our towns are mostly engineers, not lawyers. So for the last year, I have been analyzing their current bylaws (if they have any), recommending changes and improvements, and even providing them with a new model bylaw that they can use if their existing one isn’t worth salvaging.

DPW cleaning stormdrainI’ve never seen such an appreciative group of local officials since I began working for NepRWA ten years ago! One of the first things I did with NepRWA when I began working here 10 years ago was to write letters to EPA about how little our Neponset towns were doing to reduce stormwater runoff (even though they really weren’t doing any less than any other towns). Needless to say, that didn’t win friends and influence municipal employees. NepRWA has long since changed such tactics, and I can now clearly see how helping towns meet some of their most difficult challenges is paying off and leading to mutually beneficial cooperation, as well as better water quality.

by Steve Pearlman, Advocacy Director, December 2014

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