Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Citizen's Guide to the Clean Water Act

In 2006, the City of Bellingham spent a $120,000 on a stormwater project at the base of E. Academy Road. I'm sure the new underground facility is providing some relief. But it does not begin to address the majority of stormwater runoff from the Academy Road Drainage Basin, which is comprised of steep slopes, clearcuts, hobby farms and ranches, rapidly growing county housing developments and an out-dated system of open ditches that drain directly in to Lake Whatcom.

At the beginning of the year, the man-made ditches that make up the majority of the City and County's stormwater management system were overwhelmed with stormwater runoff.

At the city/county line, someone (city or county) installed a culvert that diverts ditch water across the road where it is released to run unfettered across private property. Some of the good folks at the City call this a natural stream!

In the early 1990's, a developer, (who was actually an Engineer employed by the City of Bellingham), purchased a large piece of undeveloped, forested property to create a housing development above North Shore. (Between Academy and Silverbeach Ave). In order to maximize the number of lots he could plat and sell, he proposed to install an underground culvert to put the County's AWOL ditch water underground.

Initially, it didn't seem like such a bad idea. It certainly provided a layer of flood protection for the families that purchased the property. But it was not a comprehensive management plan. The culvert captured water where it entered the developer's property and dumps it back on private property where the developer's plat ended. From time to time, the culvert plugs up with sticks, garbage and other debris, and causes small floods.

Piece meal infrastructure development causes a multitude of problems for adjacent property owners. For instance, we have discovered that the developer's culvert acts as an underground "speed way" that actually increases the velocity of the water before it spills into what has become a very deep dirt ravine.

A few hundred feet down stream, the water is channeled to an outdated cement stormwater catch basin with a smaller culvert on North Shore Drive. And, that's where the trouble begins.

The catch basin is designed to capture the water and guide it to the lake through a smaller underground culvert. There is no treatment or filter to catch sediment. (Hello, phosphorus)! Today, there is a large alluvial fan of sediment where the culvert releases water into the lake.

Apparently, the city didn't think it needed to modernize the catch basin when it permitted the engineer's development (and all of the other housing developments that contribute to the growing runoff problem).

One of the property owners below the development installed a second culvert to protect his property (which was rapidly eroding away) thanks to the developer's culvert.

Today, there is a very deep ravine that was formed as a result of erosion from the piece meal treatment. (The City recently cited the property owner for his "unpermitted" culvert and sent him a letter with a $1,000 fine).

This is where it get's interesting. On the night of the flood, the City claims, in part, that the "unpermitted" culvert caused the flood. I respectfully disagree.

On the night of the flood, the catch basin, which is not designed or even remotely capable of handling the tremendous volume of water that came down the hill that night - overflowed and flooded several homes. The city ditches should have provided some relief, but the city has not maintained the ditches along North Shore, (they are filled with blackberry vines, sediment, rocks and garbage) and the water had no place to go but overland.

If anything, that "unpermitted culvert" and its "berm" of earth prevented thousands and thousands of gallons of additional water from surging across the road during the worst of the flood.

At one point, I was standing in thigh deep water on North Shore Drive. Now, I don't even want to think how deep the water would have been without the added safety provided by that "unpermitted" culvert and berm!
This is not a new problem. Overland stormwater runoff has been steadily increasing in the Silver Beach neighborhood for the last twenty years.

Silver Beach residents have been blamed for much of the pollution in Basin One. But, I hope I have demonstrated that there are many other sources of contaminated stormwater runoff in the Lake Whatcom watershed.

Sadly, the City and County do not appear to be interested in fixing this problem.

And - it is a problem.

I don't think its unreasonable to state that thousands and thousands of pounds (tons) of sediment (carrying phosphorus and other contaminants) have been deposited in the lake from Silverbeach Creek and the miles of ditches in the Academy drainage basin.

With the new TMDL requirement to reduce phosphorus loading by 70%, one would think the City and the County would be taking steps to fix the broken ditch system.

In other communities, citizens have used the citizen enforcement provisions of the Clean Water Act to protect and restore impaired lakes, streams, rivers and bays that have been harmed by stormwater runoff, point and non-point pollution.

Why would anyone think that they need to use a lawsuit to bring the city and county into compliance?

Because the city has a track record of not listening to citizens who are concerned about contamination, pollution or public health and safety issues.

For example, in 2006, a group circulated a petition (The Healthy Bay Initiative) to encourage the City to clean up mercury contamination in Bellingham Bay.

The proponents of the initiative were sued by the City and Port in order to prevent the initiative from being placed on the ballot.

In fact, the city has sued 90% of initiative proponents during the past decade.

So, here's what citizens have learned. If you want the city or the county to address a government-caused problem, you're probably going to have to sue them.

What's the Clean Water Act? (Excerpt from EPA)

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the cornerstone of surface water quality protection in the United States. (The Act does not deal directly with ground water nor with water quantity issues.) The statute employs a variety of regulatory and nonregulatory tools to sharply reduce direct pollutant discharges into waterways, finance municipal wastewater treatment facilities, and manage polluted runoff. These tools are employed to achieve the broader goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters so that they can support "the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation in and on the water."

For many years following the passage of CWA in 1972, EPA, states, and Indian tribes focused mainly on the chemical aspects of the "integrity" goal. During the last decade, however, more attention has been given to physical and biological integrity. Also, in the early decades of the Act's implementation, efforts focused on regulating discharges from traditional "point source" facilities, such as municipal sewage plants and industrial facilities, with little attention paid to runoff from streets, construction sites, farms, and other "wet-weather" sources.

Starting in the late 1980s, efforts to address polluted runoff have increased significantly. For "nonpoint" runoff, voluntary programs, including cost-sharing with landowners are the key tool. For "wet weather point sources" like urban storm sewer systems and construction sites, a regulatory approach is being employed.

Evolution of CWA programs over the last decade has also included something of a shift from a program-by-program, source-by-source, pollutant-by-pollutant approach to more holistic watershed-based strategies. Under the watershed approach equal emphasis is placed on protecting healthy waters and restoring impaired ones. A full array of issues are addressed, not just those subject to CWA regulatory authority. Involvement of stakeholder groups in the development and implementation of strategies for achieving and maintaining state water quality and other environmental goals is another hallmark of this approach.

Click here for the entire text of the CWA.
How much do you know about the Clean Water Act already? To find out, take the
Fact or Fiction quiz

Introduction to the Clean Water Act Education Module :

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