Today was the 25th Anniversary of the federal regulations requiring large cities and counties to come up with plans to deal with their stormwater runoff pollution. The George H.W. Bush Administration adopted the federal rule implementing the federal Clean Water Act on November 16th 1990. Stormwater runoff pollution and the resulting erosion of small tributary streams and creeks is a major cause of the contamination of urban rivers such as the Anacostia. The armor of concrete, asphalt and shingles that covers our urban areas holds the common contaminants of urban life – gasoline and diesel motor exhaust, oil and gas, animal waste, trash and more – until the rain washes it all into the nearest convenient stream. In a heavy rain, the force and volume of the water blows out the stream, causing erosion as well as contamination.
Cities and counties have struggled to pay for the changes that have to be made—reconfiguring our drainage systems so that the runoff is slowed down and filtered. Stormwater runoff is a classic problem of the “commons”: the negative effect on the environment of all the paving and building we do literally gets washed away when it rains, and becomes somebody else’s problem. Taxpayers, ratepayers and builders are reluctant to pay the costs for this armoring of the natural environment, because most don’t understand the direct link between the armor we put on the land and the degradation of our water. Some politicians have cynically learned to exploit this fundamental lack of understanding with inflammatory terms like “rain tax.”
For the past decade, the Washington region has been a world leader in rain gardens, green roofs, and other techniques of managing stormwater pollution. In 2013, the DC Department of Energy and the Environment, with the support of the business community, put in place a creative, first-in-the-world “catch and trade” system for dealing with the problem. The Anacostia will still be contaminated for some time, but we can be proud of our leadership role and the progress we are making.
The first Bush Administration also deserves a good deal of credit for dealing with this serious urban environmental issue. Eighteen years before that, the federal Clean Water Act passed Congress with virtually no opposition from either party. There seems to have been much more bipartisan consensus in those days about protection our natural heritage, in urban areas and elsewhere.
For more information on stormwater runoff, its effect on the Anacostia, and the DC government’s creative new “Stormwater Retention Credit” exchange program, visit www.RainPay.org.