For years Washington’s leaders have fingered stormwater runoff as Puget Sound enemy No. 1. Now the state has real data to back the charges, and decision makers will be able to use this information to better inform regulatory and policy decisions. Right now the state Department of Ecology is working on a draft plan for new stormwater rules, and the Puget Sound Partnership, the agency spearheading the restoration of Washington’s inland sea, last week approved its ecosystem goals for 2020.

Ecology published its best pollution data to date for Puget Sound in a study called the “Toxics in Surface Runoff to Puget Sound: Phase 3 Data and Load Estimates,” in which scientists sampled streams at 16 spots in the Puyallup and Snohomish river watersheds. The goal of the research was to try to get a better idea of how much pollution is flushed from the region’s  neighborhoods, business and industrial areas, farms, and forests.

I recently wrote an article about the research that ran in Crosscut, an online news site. The over-simplified takeaway message: the most toxic runoff is coming from industrial and commercial sites, so that would be a smart target for projects that clean up and control stormwater. The study also showed that the least polluted runoff came from forests, highlighting the importance of preventing sprawl in undeveloped areas.

  • The study also found that the bulk of the pollution by sheer volume came from forested lands. How can that be? First, forests make up 83 percent of the land surrounding the Sound. Second, the biggest numbers for forestland came from what’s called “total suspended solids,” which are particles such as dirt and other debris flushed into streams from logging roads and erosion. Other sizable pollutants from forests fell into the category of “Nitrate+Nitrite Nitrogen” which can come from fertilizers and farm animals, among other sources, as well as oil and grease, which Ecology suggested could come from decaying plant and animal matter.

    These clearly aren’t the most toxic of pollutants compared to chemical flame retardants, petroleum waste, and other industrial nasties that spew from developed areas, but they still cause harm, smothering salmon eggs or triggering algal blooms.

    Making waves with runoff story

    The Crosscut article –– a pretty straightforward treatment of the research and its potential policy implications –– generated a surprising bit of ire among readers. The matter of forest-related pollution is what seemed to create the most irritation. That was in part because the data on oil and grease are very ballpark-level estimates. Ecology’s detection method was rarely able to detect oil and grease in the runoff, but rather than assuming there was none and enter a zero into the tables, Ecology assigned a level of pollution below the concentration their scientists could pick up. It’s a strategy for hedging your bets. Is it the right strategy? I don’t know, I’m not a water pollution expert, but it seems a reasonable approach provided you remember you’re dealing with a rough estimate. (Table 10 in the study is a good place to go for relatively detailed overview data, while Table 15 gives rougher summary info.)

    But some pollution was frequently detected coming from forests including mercury and PCBs. This suggests that even though forests yield less toxic pollution, you can’t ignore our woods as a source of problems for Puget Sound. And what that really means is that we still need to keep an eye on banning or doing all that we can to keep the most dangerous toxics out of the environment in the first place.  Washington’s ban on certain flame retardants is a good example of that sort of policy.

    Another solution: low-impact development. That’s a strategy for building and retrofitting our communities and business districts in a way that reduces the creation of stormwater runoff. It means leaving as much land as possible in native vegetation, and constructing buildings that have a smaller footprint –– building up instead of out. It also requires the use of technologies that help hold and treat runoff, such as green roofs and rain gardens that act as sponges that absorb downpours instead of sending tidal waves of runoff into streams and lakes. Porous asphalt and concrete are other low-impact development tools that let water trickle through to the ground below them.

    Ecology works on new rules

    Green roof in Kirkland

    Last week Ecology ended an informal comment period for its proposed low-impact development regulations for Puget Sound area cities and counties.  Investigate West had a good story on the proposal and feedback from stormwater experts, enviros and the building industry. These are rules that have taken years to craft, and will likely be in place for many more to come. That’s led some greens to raise concerns that Ecology isn’t calling for strict enough regulations to curb stormwater in order to protect Puget Sound. Sightline weighed in with comments on the draft proposal as well, noting that the good news included requiring low-impact development on projects smaller than 1 acre and a beefed-up, collaborative program for additional direct measurements of stormwater pollution.

    But the real challenge when it comes to making a dent in stormwater damage, which includes reducing the volume of runoff and not just the poisoned cocktail it mixes up, is protecting undeveloped lands. As Ecology’s own study shows, forests pollute far less than other land uses. In the Crosscut article, I quoted Mindy Roberts, project manager for the research, as saying: “it’s a darn good thing that 83 percent of our watershed is forested” because we’d be in even worse shape if more sprawl had taken place.

    The Ecology proposal includes a new requirement that stormwater damage is assessed at the basin-level. That means if cities X and Y are approving building developments of a size that exceeds certain thresholds in an area that drains to a specific waterbody, they need to determine what effect the project will have in terms of stormwater runoff.

    Will the new regulations be enough to save the Sound from the destruction caused by stormwater? Experts are saying no, and interviews I’ve done in the past with Ecology staff suggest they’re skeptical as well. But the story’s not finished. Ecology will be releasing a final draft proposal in October and will be taking formal public comments until February 2012. In July the department is releasing another report that will try to better pinpoint the environmental harm being caused by runoff.

    There’s work being done on the problem outside of Ecology as well. The Puget Sound Partnership met last week and approved a set of goals for the region to measure our progress on the recovery of the Sound. The big disappointment was that the Partnership punted on setting land use goals – arguably the most important benchmark they can set. The Kitsap Sun’s tireless Chris Dunagan did a great story and blog on the goal setting. In the blog he writes:

    Issues related to land use, including targets for forest cover and protection of sensitive environments, were pushed off until October, even though these issues are considered among the highest priority.

    Col. Anthony Wright, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Seattle District, said members of the Leadership Council were cowards for not tackling the tough issue of land use. His words were so blunt that I’m not sure whether he was trying to inject some humor into the discussion.

    The Partnership is also taking comments on a draft document that is intended to help local cities and counties strengthen their stormwater regulations.

    And grassroots efforts are underway to support better use of our developed lands, including the expanded use of rain gardens, with the 12,000 Rain Gardens initiative and even with public talks about the issue, such as the 2011 Seattle Watersheds Forum that I moderated recently that drew 120 participants. These gardens might not save the Sound, but they do raise awareness about this often intangible problem.