By Eileen Straughan, President, Straughan Environmental, Inc.
How Did We Get Here?
Most people don’t think of rain water that runs off roofs, parking lots, roadways and manicured lawns as polluted, but back in the 1980s, sampling proved that the first half inch to an inch of runoff does carry pollutants and this pollution is one of the reasons why water quality and living resources are in decline in our streams, rivers, lakes and bays. The pollutants settle on paved areas from the air and get into the air from the combustion of fossil fuels in the cars we drive and the power plants that provide us electricity. Other pollutants in runoff come from fertilizers and pesticides applied to lawns, paints used to mark pavement, brake lining erosion, tire erosion and roadside litter. The amount of runoff is also a problem. Prior to covering the land with buildings and pavement and manicured lawns, stormwater was captured in tree canopies and meadows and slowly infiltrated into groundwater and entered streams through seeps and springs. Past development practices dropped stormwater from roof tops and pavement into inlets and underground pipes with no opportunity for infiltration. In the pipes, the stormwater picks up speed and once this large amount of runoff enters the stream, it causes scouring of the streambed and banks, damaging the habitat for fish and other stream life and sending tons of sediment downstream.
The U.S. EPA is the federal agency responsible for ensuring that the nation’s waters are “fishable and swimmable” and the Clean Water Act is the law that regulates all sources of pollution in waterways. EPA was sued for not enforcing the Clean Water Act in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and in 2010 EPA implemented a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Bay; essentially a pollution “diet” requiring significant reductions in current levels of pollution entering the Bay. EPA alerted all the states in the watershed that it would use existing permits as a regulatory tool to enforce the “diet.” The largest most developed counties and cities in the watershed have permits for their storm sewer systems and those permits now include requirements to control pollution in stormwater and restore streams.
Pollution must be reduced from all sources in the watershed including wastewater treatment plants, septic systems, agriculture, urban stormwater and future development, and Bay watershed states had to identify how projects needed to reduce pollution would be funded. In 2011 the Maryland legislature passed a state law requiring the most developed counties to establish stormwater utilities similar to water/sewer utilities to establish a long term source of funds for stormwater pollution project design, construction, operation and maintenance.
The Way Forward
The developed counties have taken various approaches to stormwater fees, but in general the fee has been related to the amount of rooftop and pavement on a property. Some counties and cities have exempted churches and other nonprofit organizations from stormwater fees, and some offer opportunities to reduce fees by installing practices that would reduce stormwater pollution. Whether your church has to pay a fee, build a stormwater practice, or both, depends on which county or city your church is located.
Sustainability is providing for our needs in the present without impacting the ability of future generations to provide for their needs. It has been described as the intersection of the needs of society, the economy and the environment. For churches, sustainability can be approached by looking carefully at how solid waste is generated and disposed, how energy and water are used, and how pollution in stormwater is addressed.
Stormwater on Your Church Property
The first step is to observe stormwater runoff from “top to bottom;” where does it go from rooftops, pavements, sidewalks and lawn areas? Is there a way to disconnect some or all of the downspouts and direct the runoff to a stormwater practice like a bioswale or raingarden? Bioswales and raingardens contain a special type of soil and are planted in native plants that together provide filtration and transformation of pollutants in stormwater. Are there sidewalks, patios or other impervious surfaces that could be replaced with pervious materials like concrete pavers, porous concrete or porous asphalt? If the property is large with multiple buildings, driveways, sidewalks and parking lots, it may contain several drainage areas and several low points where stormwater leaves the property, requiring a more complex evaluation and consideration of multiple strategies to treat stormwater runoff using the landscape.
If your church was constructed after the mid 1980s in Maryland, you likely have some type of basin or below ground structure for stormwater management, as state and local ordinances required them. The ponds constructed in the 1980s and 1990s provide some benefit in terms of stormwater quantity and even quality control, but current approaches perform better because they are low impact development (LID) design strategies, using multiple, smaller practices on the landscape, rather than a large pond, to treat stormwater and allow it to infiltrate through underlying soils and enter groundwater. Your church records, including the site plan and architectural drawings will provide valuable information about how stormwater is collected and treated and whether there are places where you can intercept and disconnect downspouts and install stormwater practices that will reduce the environmental impact of stormwater runoff from your property.
If your church property has no stormwater management and you decide that you want to retrofit the property to control pollution in storm water, it is important to have an engineering study performed. The study will evaluate the drainage areas, all the impervious surfaces, potential locations for stormwater practices and will calculate stormwater runoff volumes to size the stormwater practices correctly. Engineering design plans will be signed and sealed by a licensed professional engineer and will have to be reviewed and approved by the local department of public works prior to construction.
-About the Author
Ms. Straughan, President of Straughan Environmental, Inc., is a recognized expert in water resource issues. She currently serves as the President of the Board for the Center for Watershed Protection and previously served as a board member at the Maryland Chapter of the US Green Building Council, and is Past President of the Maryland Stream Restoration Association.