Regulating Polluted Runoff

Snow-melt, picking up contaminants from a parking lot, flows into a Canton catchbasin.

Snow-melt, picking up contaminants from a parking lot, flows into a Canton catchbasin.

Once upon a time, water pollution was caused mainly by large companies spewing industrial chemicals and cities discharging untreated sewage into our rivers and streams. But, thanks to the federal Clean Water Act and the hard work of river advocates, those discharges are now greatly restricted. Today, stormwater runoff from paved areas, rooftops and other hard (“impervious”) surfaces is responsible for 60% of the water pollution in the state.

As it flows over pavement, rainwater picks up dog waste, oil and  gasoline, trash and many other pollutants before it discharges – usually untreated – into our rivers, streams and wetlands.

And while it may seem counter-intuitive, today’s production of stormwater runoff causes water shortages and low streamflows, as well as flooding.

Rainwater, under natural circumstances, soaks into the ground and recharges our aquifers. This groundwater then slowly but steadily is released into surface waters over the course of the year.

Once a natural area is paved or a building is constructed, 16 times as much rain runs off into rivers and streams, causing a rapid storm surge (and, sometimes, flooding), instead of gradual replenishment of groundwater and surface water flows.

Despite the federal Clean Water Act, not much has been done in most Massachusetts cities or towns to properly manage stormwater. Some town Conservation Commissions do a pretty good job under the state Wetlands Protection Act, but they only have authority over new development next to rivers, streams and wetlands, not in “uplands” – or areas further from these water resources.

The Watershed Association has been advocating strongly for a new federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal that would tighten stormwater requirements for municipal storm drains in Massachusetts. (Virtually all stormwater from roads, as well as from roofs, driveways and parking lots that drain into the streets, goes into municipal storm drains.) The Watershed Association’s  Advocacy Director co-chaired the statewide effort by watershed associations and environmental groups in support of the EPA proposal (which still has not been finalized).

Along with the Mystic River Watershed Association, the Neponset also convinced EPA to develop (and is actually participating in the development of) electronic applications and annual reporting forms. The resulting electronic records will for the first time enable watershed groups (and EPA) to compare towns to determine who is doing a good job, who is doing a fair job, and who may need an EPA enforcement action to get them more focused on stormwater management.

Although the EPA rules will require stricter town stormwater bylaws governing new development in uplands as well as wetlands, in a fairly densely developed area like the Neponset Watershed, this is not going to get us the groundwater recharge or level of pollution reduction we need. Requiring proper management of stormwater from existing developments (or at least those with large amounts of paved surfaces) places the costs of stormwater treatment on those who are primarily responsible for it, instead of on taxpayers.  EPA is planning to pilot this approach in three Charles River Watershed towns. The Watershed Association will be working to extend it to our watershed, in the future.

Questions? Contact Executive Director, Ian Cooke, at 781-575-0354 x305 or

–Feb. 2012

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