Ben Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., committed to uniting…
Aug 12, 2014

Catch & Trade

Storm water innovation is hitting the rooftops and hardscapes in the nation’s capital in a big way: Washington, D.C.’s District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is using regulatory drivers, market-based incentives and public-private partnerships to get cleaner water and a greener city.

This is just one of many profiles in courage and innovation that will be discussed at the 2014 One Water Leadership Summit in Kansas City, Mo., Sept. 15 to 17, where urban water sustainability champions converge to share solutions.

What is happening in the District and why is it important? It is all about onsite and offsite storm water retention credits (SRC) and storm water fee discounts in the context of Clean Water Act Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits and watershed implementation plans under the December 2012 Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). It is also about attempts to modify a 2004 combined sewer overflow (CSO) consent decree to shift money and effort from building additional “gray infrastructure” deep tunnels to blossoming more aboveground green infrastructure. Think of it as transitioning urban hardscape such as streets and lots to “softer paths” (a Peter Gleick favorite) and “green seams” (a winning watershed protection strategy of Kevin Shafer and his team at Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District).

Because the stakes are so high, with the nation and the world becoming increasingly urban and storm water management increasingly difficult (and costly), the U.S. Water Alliance and National Water Quality Trading Alliance convened a roundtable discussion on the DDOE’s new regulations (finalized in July 2013) to prompt discussion about innovation, implementation and possible expansion to other cities and regions. Jeff Seltzer and Brian Van Wye, two of DDOE’s water champions, presented the background, regulatory highlights and implementation challenges to a diverse group of thought leaders assembled by the alliances at the conference center of Troutman Sanders law firm in Washington, D.C., on July 29, 2014. Participants included former Governor of Maryland and current leader at Smart Growth America, Parris Glendening, current and former Chesapeake Bay and U.S. EPA officials, national and regional business leaders, and state and local water representatives. Here is the PowerPoint presented by Brian Van Wye, also accessible on the U.S. Water Alliance website.

Concrete Context

Forty-three percent of the District’s land is impervious. It is a compact 61 sq miles, bounded, defined and sustained by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek. According to DDOE, a single 1.2-in. storm falling on this area produces about 525 million gal of storm water runoff. A great challenge for the capital region is steering redevelopment (and new development) to capture and cleanse more of the water for local and downstream benefits.

Some of my earliest glimpses of the growing challenge and emerging creativity: efforts to arrest harmful runoff into the city’s forgotten river, the Anacostia, 25 years ago, and the use of green infrastructure in EPA’s MS4 permits almost a decade ago. Also, the District’s plastic bag tax and DDOE’s RiverSmart program stand out as important, unique initiatives to make progress on urban runoff.

SRCs and Fee Discounts

The key regulatory driver is the storm water retention standard. According to the EPA, 18 states (plus the District) have onsite storm water retention standards of various sorts. In the District, that means essentially a 1.2-in. retention requirement, with flexibility to use offsite projects to generate credit in a market for trading and water quality upgrading. Property owners are free to go offsite after achieving 50% of the required retention offsite. Of course, until surrounding jurisdictions and the District reach some agreement over a broader watershed scope, the offsite option is limited to the District’s compact boundaries.

Offsite retention volume is an annual obligation and there are two options to achieve the required amount: an in lieu fee payment to DDOE (amounting to $3.50 per gallon per year) and use of privately tradable SRCs. DDOE sees many environmental, economic and social benefits to the private trading option. DDOE is the sole SRC-certifying authority. Both DDOE and DC Water impose various storm water impervious surface fees and both offer discounts for onsite retention/green infrastructure work.

Green Showcase

Much of the District’s focus here is about water quality. Other forces are at work too, under the broad umbrella of smart growth and climate resilience. They are testing the economics and public appeal of green streetscapes and water supply augmentation. One of the largely hidden secrets is an underground system that stores rainwater in cisterns and then irrigates the lawn on the national Mall between the Capitol and Washington Monument—quite a platform for the National Park Service and others to prove and improve green infrastructure techniques.

There is monumental progress under the National Mall, among the statues and traffic circles, and on top of the storied buildings and museums. It is risky business, but that is the nature of storm water and big thinking in urban redesign. We will see some failures along the way, as DDOE and other key players implement and adapt to the new order of a greener and “spongier” district. Pursuing “the softer path” always includes some hard realities, trials and errors, but it is worth it, particularly in a city that is becoming a national stage for green infrastructure leadership.

Ben Grumbles is president of the U.S. Water Alliance, a not-for-profit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., committed to uniting people and policies for water sustainability throughout the country. Grumbles has a long career in water and environmental policy, serving the public and teaching law students and environmental professionals, over the past 25 years. He can be reached at [email protected].