Time for an overhaul in stormwater regulation

I worked for a time in regulation, specifically stormwater management. Developers did pre-permit shopping to see who would be assigned to review their plans, hoping that they would have the luck of the more lenient of the drainage reviewers. Within the scope of single-family units and other residential development projects, the drainage review was typically the limiting factor to making progress in approval. There were a few projects that had not sufficiently met requirements and posed a hazard to the surrounding areas. For the most part, regulations come from a place of good intentions, but in reality they inhibit the review process without actually producing the desired results hoped for by policymakers. The first step to reforming these policies includes increasing the representation of different participants in the stormwater regulation system.

Creating the regulations

The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is overseen by the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) and works to prevent pollutant discharge to waters of the state. The DOE enforces this at different levels, from contractors to entire municipalities. My focus is on the municipalities, who usually adopt the materials supplied by the state in order to remain in compliance. For example, a county may adopt the Western Stormwater Management Manual and add a few additional policies or recommendations to tailor the document to their specific region. Regulations in county code align with the manual and the two attempts to remain in sync, maintaining compliance with the NPDES permit and preventing any repercussions. But who actually makes these policies and recommendations for stormwater management? Very few people at the municipal level are involved in the planning process. From my experience, the people making the code and manuals were not, and had not at any point, been on the regulation side of the coin OR in development. Out of a committee of at least fifteen members drafting new code, only one had worked in contract work and had regulation experience. Even then, he was not actively reviewing plans.

What actually happens during review?

Developers are not encouraged to create innovative designs, but rather find a way around policy by proving exception or taking the path of least resistance. Subsequently, reviewers are usually from industry as well and understand the pain and expense of meeting regulation and are willing to find a loophole or make continual exceptions for projects in order to keep moving projects through the system. There is minimal motivation to design and implement more sustainable technology.

How do we move forward?

I do not pretend to have all the solutions, but one thing is absolute: more representatives from the construction industry and municipal level employees needs to be present when creating policy. This opens the dialogue to a more realistic discussion of how regulation will be implemented.

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About miriamhacker

A native to the Pacific Northwest, Miriam completed both her undergraduate and graduate studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. Her current research interests focus on the relationships between cultural understanding and access to sanitation technology as well as social sustainability in international development. Prior to her doctoral studies, Miriam worked in stormwater regulation for a local municipality. Outside of research, Miriam enjoys volunteering with a local non-profit organization, exploring local coffee shops and watching professional basketball.

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