Business interests, greens, government reps, and Washington residents didn’t exactly all sing Kumbaya together at this week’s stormwater forum in Olympia, but the diverse crowd did find some common ground.

Beach_Lisa StifflerAs John Dodge of the Olympian described it in a great article Thursday, “…everyone attending the forum—including environmentalists and those with business ties—agreed that stormwater runoff is the biggest threat to Puget Sound’s health and will require a lot more money and coordinated effort to curb the problem.”

Sightline Institute was one of the event’s sponsors, along with Investigate West, a nonprofit news organization, and Washington Policy Center, a conservative-leaning think tank that offers a yin to our yang. The forum featured three panelists: Bill Ruckelshaus, former two-time administrator of the EPA and founding chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council; Josh Baldi, special assistant to the director of the Washington Department of Ecology; and Grant Nelson, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business.

Attendance was great at the event, which was held on Wednesday at the Capitol Campus; at least 70 people were in the crowd, including at last a half-dozen state lawmakers. We’d planned to record the event and TVW even showed up to broadcast it, but the Association of Washington Business hadn’t agreed to that in advance, so I took notes from the stormwater forum if you want to get a feel for the event (please note that this is not a verbatim transcript, so don’t quote from it).

The panelists had some great insights into the challenges and solutions posed by the tidal waves of polluted runoff that are damaging the Northwest’s environment, flooding homes, and threatening our health.

Here were some of their key points:

  • 1. GROWING THREAT: In decades past, about 85 percent of the water pollution came from individual polluters—industry, sewage plants, etc.—and about 15 percent of it came from stormwater runoff. Now that number has flipped, and stormwater is the prime bad actor when it comes to water pollution.

    And where does all of that pollution and runoff come from? It’s pouring off of urban, suburban, and rural lands, agricultural areas, and logged forests. It’s coming from the impervious surfaces that we build: roofs, roads, parking lots, highways, and even poorly draining landscapes such as some lawns.

    “People all understand the toxic legacy we’ve been cleaning up for decades,” said Baldi, of Ecology, referring to historic pollution at Superfund sites and other contaminated locations.

    “People don’t often think about the impervious surfaces as our stormwater legacy,” he said.  It’s going to require major replumbing.”

    2. TALLYING THE TOXICS: The Ecology Department has been trying to get a handle on how much and where all of this toxic junk is coming from that’s fouling Puget Sound. They’ve gone through two rounds of studies to estimate the “loading” sources and volumes polluting the Sound. In the next few weeks, they should be releasing the third version of the study. This iteration is eagerly awaited because instead of using modeling based on national data to make pollution estimates, the study will rely on actual on-the-ground data collection of stormwater pollution levels.

    This topic fueled some of the day’s most heated discussion. As the data has gotten better, Ecology has revised the pollution estimates, causing some folks at the forum to ask if the problem has been overblown and whether we’ve been rushing to make policy decisions based on inaccurate results.

    Baldi countered that the data keep improving, and that the same themes hold: stormwater is a huge source of pollution and the top threats by volume are: petroleum, copper, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that come from burning fossil fuels, and zinc, in that order. He added that stormwater runoff comes from too many sources to get perfect measurements—but that they can help inform the discussions.

    We “need to make decisions before perfect science is available,” Ruckelshaus said.

    3. STORMWATER SOLUTIONS, PART A:

    Everyone had their own angle when it came to stormwater runoff solutions. Nelson, of the Washington Business Association, spoke in favor of product bans that target toxics, such as bans on copper in brake pads and boat paint, and lead wheel weights. “It’s going to lead to long-term improvements in water quality,” Nelson said of the strategy.

    He also wondered if some of the increasingly stringent stormwater-pollution permits issued by Ecology were asking for businesses and industries to remove small amounts of toxics at a great cost when those resources could have a bigger impact elsewhere.

    3. STORMWATER SOLUTIONS, PART B:

    Bob Jacobs, a former mayor of Olympia, hit Baldi with one of the toughest questions of the day: Research shows that you need to preserve about 65 percent of the native vegetation on a site to prevent stormwater damage to the environment, so will Ecology require that level of conservation in upcoming regulations?

    That led Baldi to acknowledge that stormwater runoff is fundamentally a land-use problem. The trouble, he said, is that stormwater permits are not inherently designed to set land-use rules. He called on the Legislature to help resolve that disconnect.

    Baldi did call out low-impact development, or LID, as a proven strategy for cutting stormwater volumes and helping treat the toxic pollutants through green and natural technologies (they can include rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, porous pavement, and protecting and restoring vegetation). Sightline has likewise made the case for LID being a smart, affordable stormwater solution that also protects the environment, creates habitat for wildlife, makes urban areas more livable and safeguards human health.

    4. STORMWATER SOLUTIONS, PART C:

    Ruckelshaus had an interesting take on how to address the problems created by polluted runoff. He emphasized the need to get all of the governments dealing with Puget Sound issues coordinated to help them prioritize the most important actions that are needed to solve the stormwater problem.

    “What I’ve become convinced of is governance is the screaming need here,” Ruckelshaus said.

    Ruckelshaus was the founding chair of the Puget Sound Partnership Leadership Council, which is helping oversee restoration work in the Sound that’s being coordinated by the Puget Sound Partnership, a state agency. His response made me later wonder if he thinks that the Partnership doesn’t have the authority it needs to orchestrate all of the governments involved.

    Another aspect to Ruckelshaus’s solution was pooling the $100 million annually spent on the Sound’s recovery so that it can be allocated to the best projects. He said that the way it currently works, money is earmarked for specific causes, which might not always be the most pressing needs.

    Ruckelshaus suggested a model along the lines of a federal program that helped pay for new sewage treatment plants. The feds covered 70 percent of the bill, while local and state governments split the other 30 percent. The program was such a success, he said, that numerous plants were built and the funding was cut in the late 1970s. He didn’t necessarily endorse the 70:15:15 split for doing stormwater projects, but was backing the concept for tackling polluted runoff.

    “This is a big cost item, particularly in urban areas,” he said. “We’re not going to make a lot of progress unless there’s a lot of money available.”

    4. CLOSE TO KUMBAYA: The panelists did agree on one aspect of the solution: We’re going to have to all pull together if we want to make a meaningful dent in the damage caused by toxic runoff.

    “This is going to take all of our effort to fix a problem that is too big for any one of us to handle on our own,” said Nelson.

    Baldi described the need for a shift in our societal perspective on the order of the awareness changes that curbed the US litter problem. He called on more public education, changes in building codes and permitting, and local, community leaders to help create that change. In answer to a question from Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D, Lynnwood, he urged the crowd to check out the website Puget Sound Starts Here to find actions that individuals can take to help the Sound.

    Ruckelshaus extolled the importance of getting the public to take some ownership of the problem: “We’ve got to get the people of Puget Sound to take control of their own place.”

    He later added:

    “As we do realize what can happen with the creation of more impervious surfaces, the principal ought to be: ‘Let’s not do any additional harm.’ “

    UPDATE 3/27/11: Here’s a blog post on the event from Robert McClure with Investigate West and another from Jason Hagey with the Association of Washington Business.

    Puget Sound beach photo by Lisa Stiffler.