One of the best policy opportunities to restore Puget Sound will be unveiled this week. It’s incredibly important but, unfortunately, it also sounds incredibly boring. And that means it’s likely to be overlooked by a whole boatload of people who should care.

Here’s the scoop: on August 1, the Washington Department of Ecology is scheduled to issue its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) final Phase I Municipal Stormwater General Permit. We’ll also get to see the new SWMMWW, whatever that is.

Are you still with me?

Because that’s not the half of it. Ecology will also release the Phase II municipal permits for both eastern and western Washington.

I told you it sounded boring.

But it is important. In fact, Chris Wilke, executive director of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance says, “These new permits represent our best chance to address the single largest source of toxic pollution to Puget Sound. If done right, we will see a notable change in the way our land is developed to implement widespread use of green infrastructure.”

So as a sort of guide for the perplexed, here’s what all this permit business is about – and why you should care.

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  • There’s a whole mess of history and regulation that we’re going to skip for now. The upshot is that the US Clean Water Act requires states like Washington to produce, every five years, new rules that tell cities and counties how they are allowed to manage their polluted stormwater runoff. These rules—known as “municipal permits” in bureaucratese—cover everything from how municipalities reach out to citizens to educate them on good stormwater practices (i.e., lawn care, scooping poop, and discouraging driveway car-washing) to monitoring and evaluating treatment systems to requiring cities to report illicit discharges, spills, and water quality problems to the state.

    In other words, the permits are basically blueprints for how Washington’s cities treat runoff pollution. Does contaminated rainwater stream off roads and parking lots into nearby waterbodies? Is it captured and transported by big, expensive pipes and treatment centers? Or is it treated on-site with green low-impact development techniques like roadside rain gardens, permeable pavement, and green roofs. Then there’s the really effective preventative medicine: must localities protect native vegetation and limit the spread of impervious surface? That’s what the permits tell us. And, of paramount importance, these permits will tell us when these techniques must be used, and when there are exemptions.  All of this has big consequences for places like Puget Sound where experts consider stormwater runoff a major threat.

    So on August 1, when we see the new permits, we’ll know if the Puget Sound region is about to enter a greener era of stormwater management. Or not.

    Technically speaking, on August 1, we’ll actually be seeing two sets of permits. The first set—simply a reissuance of the current permits with some minor changes—doesn’t matter much. They are in force only for a year or two. The second set—the revamped Phase I and Phase IIs—is where the action is. This is how it breaks down:

    Municipal Permits to be issued on August 1, 2012:

    First Set – no substantial changes Effective Date End Date
    Phase I September 1, 2012 July 31, 2013
    Phase II Western Washington September 1, 2012 July 31, 2013
    Phase II Eastern Washington September 1, 2012 July 31, 2014
    Second Set – substantial changes Effective Date End Date
    Phase I August 1, 2013 July 31, 2018
    Phase II Western Washington August 1, 2013 July 31, 2018
    Phase II Eastern Washington August 1, 2014 July 31, 2019

    If all this looks like confusing jargon, that’s probably because it is, in fact, confusing jargon.

    The deal is basically this: the so-called “Phase I” permits apply to big cities and counties, while the “Phase II” permits apply to the smaller municipalities in the state, including 99 cities and 11 counties. The Phase II permits also apply to “secondary permittees,” public entities—think ports, prisons, parks and rec districts, universities and so on—that have sewer systems. That means, if you live in Washington, the revised permits mean that a new way of treating stormwater is coming to a neighborhood near you. Actually, it’s probably coming to your neighborhood.

    As shown on the table, there are actually two flavors of the Phase II permits: one for western Washington and one for places east of the Cascades. (The two regions obviously have very different climates, geology, and soils, all of which warrants different stormwater management.) Further confusing the matter, the new Phase IIs will be effective for different periods of time.  From 2013-2018 in western Washington and from 2014-2019 in eastern Washington. All of the revised permits will include substantial changes. But that’s just the technical stuff; it’s the content of the permits that will make things interesting.

    There’s a lot we don’t yet know about what permits will include.

    What we do know, generally speaking, is that the permits will include new requirements for low-impact development. Yet there will also be exemptions or “off-ramps” where low impact development is considered infeasible. (For example, builders won’t be required to put vegetation on a steeply-sloped roof.) There will be a sort of prescriptive balancing act too: the permits will include specific mandates and standards but will also let local jurisdictions amend their codes themselves. And the permits are expected to establish a new way of thinking about stormwater runoff through a watershed approach, also known as “basin plans.” The permits will also set up a regional monitoring program.

    It all amounts to big changes. At least potentially. (There will be a thirty day appeal period right off the bat.)

    If the permits tell us what to do about stormwater, it’s the “Stormwater Management Manual”—the mellifluous SWMMWW we mentioned earlier—that tells us how to do it.

    As luck would have it, August 1 will also bring a newly updated manual for western Washington. The manual is basically a guidance document on the technical aspects of stormwater management and it is required to be used by the municipal stormwater permittees as well as all the other stormwater permittees that we haven’t told you about. (In addition to municipal permits there are permits for boatyards, construction sites, industrial facilities, and sand and gravel operations.) We don’t yet know what specific changes will be included in the new stormwater manual, but we do know that they will establish new requirements for low impact development and revised guidelines for wetland protection, as well as a bunch of technical stuff about management practices and monitoring.

    In a nutshell, that’s what all the stormwater jargon you may be hearing means. The sound of “Phase II NPDES permit” may not set your heart on fire, but the substance of the rules really does a lot for the future health of Puget Sound and the sustainability of our cities. We’ll see you back here for our take on how good they are.

    Ashley Pedersen is an environmental attorney and policy analyst who lives in Seattle.