Four out of five Americans live in urban areas which means most of our neighborhood waters are probably unsafe for our children. The threat to safety comes from the disease-causing organisms washed into these waters with each storm and other sources, such as leaking sewerlines.
On the East Coast, where a third of us live, there’s probably a waterway no more than a 15-minute walk from our homes. While most of these waters are small, headwater streams they can be a source of tremendous fun and fascination for our children. In fact I commonly begin speaking engagements by asking how many folks recall playing in waters near their home as a child. Most raise their hands, particularly among older crowds. Then I ask how many would feel comfortable allowing their children or grand kids to play in the waters nearest their homes today. Very few hands go up.
How sad it is that in the cities, towns and suburbs where recreational opportunities are most desperately needed, thousands of miles of potential aquatic playgrounds are unsafe for our use. And how maddening it is that lax enforcement of our clean water laws has left many of these waters unusable today.
Take for instance Anne Arundel County, MD. In 2011 CEDS conducted a watershed audit of the Severn River (of U.S. Naval Academy fame). We surveyed a portion of the 2,000 stormwater ponds and other Best Management Practices (BMPs) intended to treat runoff from the homes, businesses, parking lots and other impervious surfaces draining to the Severn. We found that half the BMPs had failed due to lack of maintenance. Further research showed why.
In 2001, the County reduced the number of stormwater inspectors from seven to one! A stormwater BMP should be inspected at least once every three years to ensure the owners are providing adequate maintenance. In an urban area one inspector can evaluate a thousand BMPs per year. Anne Arundel County has 11,000 of these facilities.
Because of the slashing of inspection staff, few Severn watershed BMPs have been evaluated over the past decade, which accounts for the 50% failure rate we found. Those BMPs could have been treating runoff from a third of all the development within the Severn watershed. Instead the streams in these parts of the watershed had been allowed to degrade.
Unfortunately, the enforcement problem is not confined to Anne Arundel County or to just stormwater BMPs. It appears to cut across all activities regulated by current clean water laws and is a nationwide issue.
CEDS developed the audit approach to provide advocates with a way of determining if activities in their watershed were fully complying with clean water laws. But audits alone will not resolve the clean water law enforcement problem. We also need a large increase in public support. Perhaps the best way to generate this support is to shift the focus from just saving fish and other critters to safe guarding our children. In fact, The Language of Conervation 2013 urges us environmental advocates to do exactly that by focusing more on health and safety issues.
So, here’s what we have in mind.
We know that as watershed development intensity increases, disease-causing organisms increase as well in the streams and other receiving waters. A North Carolina study documented a direct correlation between the percent of a watershed covered by impervious surfaces and fecal coliform bacteria. The U.S. EPA recently adopted new fecal coliform criteria to protect the health of recreational water users. The criteria does not eliminate illnesses, but reduces the incidence to 32 cases per 1,000 people who recreate in water. Note that a coalition of environmental groups believe the criteria should be more protective and have sued EPA.
The North Carolina study indicated that 13% of a watershed can be covered by impervious surfaces before the EPA health protection criteria would be exceeded. This is equivalent to about one house for every two acres of land in a watershed. We’ll assume for the moment that the results of the North Carolina study apply to other areas, though this should certainly be verified.
A number of studies show that a waterway will be of fair quality, meaning it can still support some fish, crayfish and other critters, at a development intensity of about 13% impervious area. By setting 13% watershed impervious area as a target we may keep our waterways reasonably free of disease-causing organisms and retain enough critters to still provide a fascinating experience for our children.
In addition, researchers have found that a minimum amount of forest must be retained within a watershed and along a waterway to preserve aquatic resource health. The amount needed to achieve a fair quality waterway is 40% of the watershed in forest. Also, a 100-foot forest buffer must extend from both banks along a minimum of 65% of a waterway. Fair quality is good enough to maintain hardier fish and other critters but not the more sensitive species like trout and other game fish.
So our Kid-Safe Waters Goal would consist of the following criteria:
- limit untreated impervious area to a maximum of 13% of the watershed;
- retain at least 40% of the watershed in forest; and
- ensure the presence of a 100-foot forest buffer along a minimum of 65% of the waterway(s) draining the watershed.
How would we apply the Kid-Safe Waters Goal?
Well, in our home state of Maryland we have an innovative form of stormwater management known as Environmental Site Design (ESD). Through ESD those wishing to develop the land are supposed to submit plans showing they’ve minimized forest loss and impervious area while demonstrating that all impervious surface runoff will be treated with highly-effective BMPs, such as that pictured below.
We define a highly-effective BMP as any which meets the Runoff Reduction criteria adopted by the Chesapeake Bay Program. These BMPs achieve a high rate of pollutant removal and also recharge sufficient runoff into the earth to maintain dry-weather inflow to nearby streams, wetlands and other waters.
Most ESD plans only show an attempt to comply with the runoff treatment requirement and few describe how forest loss and impervious area has been minimized. We believe this is because the ESD law and guidance manual set forth only one specific requirement which must be met: the Precipitation Target. Compliance with this target is demonstrated by showing that a sufficient number of BMPs are proposed to treat the runoff generated by most storms.
Our Kids-Safe Waters Goal would add an Impervious Area Target, a Watershed Forest Target and a Riparian Buffer Target. Applicants would then be required to demonstrate that they considered a variety of reasonable options for meeting all of these criteria. The criteria would apply to suburban-urban watersheds where impervious area is or soon will exceed 13%.
The specific criteria for each target follows:
- Impervious Area Target: Runoff from all proposed impervious surfaces should be treated with highly-effective Runoff Reduction BMPs. If a site is not suited for these highly-effective BMPs, then no more than 13% of the site can be covered by impervious surfaces (which do not drain to RR-BMPs);
- Forest Target: A minimum of 40% of the site should be set aside for forest or ground-covers that provide comparable aquatic resource benefits. This would generally be any ground cover that does not require fertilizers, pesticides or frequent mowing; and
- Riparian Buffer Target: A 100-foot buffer should extend from the banks along a minimum of 65% of any waterway located on the site.
Again, it appears that many Maryland ESD plans meet the first criteria. With regard to the second, most plans simply show compliance with the Maryland Forest Conservation Act, which only requires forest on 15% – 20% of a site. But it is not uncommon for even 15% preservation to be waived on urban-suburban sites. Thanks to fairly good stream buffer requirements in most localities, this target is already being met on many sites.
So the Kid-Safe Waters Goal may not be that difficult to met. Fortunately a number of other efforts are underway that will assist in reaching the Kid-Safe Water Goals in even intensely developed watersheds.
For example, Maryland’s most intensely populated jurisdictions must comply with Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits, most of which require treating a minimum of 20% of existing impervious area within the near future. Existing impervious area could be discounted if it drained to highly-effective BMPs. Through the application of ESD to urban redevelopment projects more existing impervious surfaces will be treated adding to the discount. Many Chesapeake Bay watershed jurisdictions have prepared Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) that describe how failed stormwater BMPs will be restored or even upgraded to improve pollutant removal. The WIPs also address retrofitting existing developed areas that lack BMPs.
Note that the Kid-Safe Waters Goal alone would not be sufficient to protect highly-sensitive waters such as those that support trout, endangered species, etc. The forest and buffer targets would need to be much higher. ESD and related approaches are brand new. No one can say how effective they will be in preserving sensitive aquatic resources over the long run. Because of this a 4% to 8% limit on watershed impervious area must be established for highly-sensitive waters until ESD is proven effective and reliable, which will take several decades.
In closing, consider this best reason for aggressively pursuing a Kid-Safe Waters Goal. We would all like our neighborhood waters to be clean enough for wading, swimming or just watching. But most suburban-urban waters do not meet this goal. However, any parent knows its nearly impossible to prevent kids from playing in these waters. Therefore our only option is to accelerate restoration efforts, beginning with full compliance with current clean water laws. To learn how you can assess and improve compliance in your area visit our Watershed Audit page.