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City Programs Invest in Green Solutions to Reduce Runoff

Analies Dyjak @ Monday, April 5, 2021 at 12:00 pm -0400

Emma Johnson | Scientific Contributor   

On September 10, 2020, a torrential rainstorm hit Washington, DC, dropping up to six inches of rain in a matter of hours in some places. Nearby waterways, like the northwest branch of the Anacostia River, rose eight feet in an hour, flooding streets and stranding drivers. 

One reason so much water ends up in the region’s waters so quickly is because 43% of the city is covered in impervious surfaces like rooftops, roads, and sidewalks that immediately direct water into the drain, straight into the rivers and creeks. DC’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) says that a storm that drops 1.2 inches of rain produces about 525 million gallons of stormwater runoff. 

In addition to quickly flooding buildings and streets, stormwater runoff poses another problem: pollution. When water flows over impervious surfaces, it collects oil, pesticides, pathogens, or whatever else is on the surface and washes it into watersheds. This can contaminate drinking water and poison wildlife.

Controlling the volume of water remains a challenge for cities across the country. The Anacostia Watershed Society labeled stormwater runoff as one of the fastest growing sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay in it’s 2020 State of the Anacostia Report Card.

City programs around the country are working to reduce the runoff volume and pollution by replacing impervious surfaces with green spaces that soak up water like a sponge. DC’s RiverSmart Homes program, which started in 2007, helps homeowners reduce runoff by providing rebates on water bills and installing features like rain gardens and permeable pavement. Today, over 4,000 DC homeowners have participated all across the city. The program has also expanded to include schools and communities outside the city’s limits.

Another city that is heavily investing in nature-based stormwater runoff mitigation programs is Philadelphia. The city created a $2.4 billion, 25-year plan in 2009 called Green City, Clean Waters, which aims to transform the health of the city’s waters primarily through green methods. The city hopes completing this plan will reduce runoff volume by 85%. Philadelphia also offers grants to help property owners pay for stormwater retrofit projects and a fee for commercial customers that is based on the square footage of impervious surface on the property.

DC and Philadelphia are just two of hundreds of cities around the country that are investing in green infrastructure initiatives to reduce stormwater runoff. From Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lenexa, Kansas, to Huntington, West Virginia, cities are seeing how rain barrels, permeable pavement, street trees, and more can reduce runoff, decrease pollution, and improve quality of life for their residents.

Managing stormwater runoff will remain a major challenge for cities in the future, especially in a changing climate. Runoff can be poisonous to the areas where we live, work, and play and create long-lasting health effects on local wildlife. Cities are rising to this challenge by turning impervious surfaces into green sponges to better protect the safety and health of all beings who live there.

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How Does Stormwater Runoff Affect Drinking Water?

Analies Dyjak @ Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at 4:10 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

As hurricane season is coming to an end, we wanted to let you know how heavy rains can impact drinking water. Here’s how stormwater runoff can affect your water.

How Does Stormwater Affect Drinking Water?

Heavy rain storms create a rapid influx of water, which can cause a host of health and environmental issues. Rainwater travels to low-lying bodies of water, including oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. Both surface and groundwater are susceptible to contamination from stormwater runoff, both of which are sources of drinking water. As water travels, it picks up loose debris, pesticides, herbicides, oil, and other types of pollution in its path. This cocktail of contaminants is then dumped into a nearby waterway. Some municipal water treatment facilities are equipped to deal with these types of contamination, while others are not. 86% of the U.S. population gets their drinking water from surface water sources, so maintaining clean lakes and rivers is extremely important for managing stormwater runoff pollution in drinking water.

What Are Combined Sewer Overflows or CSO’s?

Combined Sewer Overflows or CSO’s, are a system of underground canals that collect stormwater runoff, industrial wastewater, and sewage all in the same pipe. Under normal conditions, stormwater and sewage travels to a wastewater plant where it’s treated before being discharged into a body of water. During heavy rain events, the large influx of stormwater causes pipes to exceed the capacity of the the system. Untreated wastewater, including sewage, overflows into nearby oceans, lakes, rivers or streams or wherever a stormwater discharge output exists. CSO’s were used as early as the 1850’s, and were the only system in place to deal with such high volumes of water. Many cities have replaced CSO’s with advanced infrastructure, but cities such as Portland, Maine and Cambridge, Massachusetts still use them.

Impervious Surfaces and Stormwater

Impervious surfaces are developed areas where water is unable to infiltrate into the earth. This typically refers to paved roads, roofs, and sidewalks. When water is unable to infiltrate, it flows into the nearest body of water or wastewater system. Impervious surfaces are of concern because water picks up and carries dangerous contaminants, then deposits pollution into drinking water sources. Impervious surfaces also increase the impacts from floods. Unable to percolare, water sits on top of paved roads, increasing the flood potential and presence of biological contamination. As communities continue to develop, the area of paved or impervious surface increases as well.

Wetlands: Important for Stormwater Retention

Wetlands offer remarkable protection from the impacts of flooding and other stormwater damages. Wetlands absorb incoming water and release it slowly, acting as a natural sponge. According to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the state wetland conservation along the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts saved approximately $17 million in potential flood damage. Additionally, wetlands naturally filter stormwater runoff pollution. The fast-moving water is slowed by vegetation, which allows suspended sediment and pollution to fall to the bottom.

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