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“We were 10 years too late:” ATL Stormwater Management

March 18, 2010

In February and March (2010), the Atlanta Journal Constitution ran an excellent five part “Special Investigation” series into metro Atlanta’s September 2009 flooding and the region’s general stormwater (mis)management.

The first installment (with an interactive flood map) links the region’s explosive suburban development and poor planning to recent flooding.  Metro Atlanta developers “added 91,000 acres of impervious surface” – AKA asphalt, concrete, and roofs – to the Earth’s surface over the last decade.  For the athletically inclined, that is “the equivalent of nearly 69,000 football fields.”  When the rain hits all that hard top it runs quickly into storm drains that fill neighborhood streams and country creeks in the headwaters of the state’s rivers.  The situation is ripe for flash – or major – flooding even after minor rain events.

In part two, the AJC crew turns up the heat on subdivision homeowners’ associations and municipal managers.  Some homeowners’ associations are technically responsible for maintaining their own stormwater infrastructure, while city/county governments oversee other subdivisions.  In any event, jurisdiction over detention ponds, small dams, and pipes becomes a “hot potato” when maintenance time rolls around and nobody wants to pony up.

The third article in the series takes state and federal agencies to task for abdicating responsibility for stormwater management.  Federal agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, have “balked” at paying municipal stormwater utility fees.  And, Georgia’s Department of Transportation has dragged its feet for a long time by not developing highway water runoff permits as required by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Talk about convoluted clean water policy.

The fourth installment makes a good case for explaining why an Atlanta suburb’s flooding was not entirely a ‘natural disaster.’  Three main reasons led to the flooding: the city of Austell (Cobb County) is downstream from some of the fastest growing counties in the nation; Norfolk Southern won a federal lawsuit against Austell that exempted a rail yard from local zoning; and the county commission approved a development within the 100-year floodplain because they feared the developer might sue.  Given these facts, the twenty inches of rain over a few days was the only natural part of this disaster.  For Austell’s flooding, surveying, and rain history, see this timeline.

The final article in the series evaluates stormwater solutions.  Some cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, encourage onsite stormwater management through green roof, porous pavement, and catchment technologies.  In Georgia, stormwater utility fees have funded infrastructure improvements and upgrades for many of the state’s local governments.  The goal in all cases is to control “the first inch” of rainfall where it falls on private property before releasing that water into an adequately funded and maintained municipal stormwater system.

In case you need some visual cues, click here for 2009 flood images by the AJC.

Also, consider visiting American Rivers’ “It’s Not Just the Rain! Sprawl and Water Supply” website.  Here you can find more information on how developers can avoid expensive stormwater management infrastructure to mitigate flooding and increase water supplies at the same time.

-Chris Manganiello

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 11:17 am

    One quart of used motor oil contaminates 250,000 gallons of fresh water. Used motor oil contains lead, copper, cadmium and chromium, all toxic to humans and wildlife. The largest source of water pollution comes storm water runoff, resulting from normal rainfall washing the contaminates off of high traffic areas, city streets, parking lots, construction sites, gas stations, shipyards, transit stations, etc.

    There are over 235 million registered cars in the U.S. Vehicle engines make daily, one-drop-at-a-time “oil spills onto roads and parking lots. 80% of pollution in the marine environment comes from pollutants washing off of outdoor surfaces during normal rainfall.

    A panel of National Academy of Sciences said,

    “Oil carried from runoff is particularly damaging, the report said, because it typically ends up discharged by rivers and streams into bays and estuaries that are often some of the most sensitive ecological areas along the coast. That relentless runoff carries traces of a host of chemicals found in most fuels and can harm marine life, even in low concentrations”. May 24,2002 – New York Times

    Most businesses with outdoor high traffic and parking structures and lots are cleaned regularly, utilizing pressure washers for cosmetic, maintenance, safety and liability concerns. Pressure washers are very effective, inexpensive cleaning machines that remove oil, grease, gum, paints and dirt very quickly and efficiently. Most pressure washing activities are done nights and weekends, when businesses are slow or shut down and water quality control inspectors are not on duty. Over 700,000 pressure washers are sold each year.

    The problem is the most common method for getting rid of the pressure washing waste water is to simply hose it to the nearest storm drain – which leads to our nearest creek, river, lakes and ultimately the ocean. Waste water generated by pressure washing high traffic areas contains the used motor oil, antifreeze, air conditioning condensate, gum, as well as, the toxic cleaning agents that are being used in the cleaning process. Again, one quart of used motor oil contaminates 250,000 gallons of fresh water.

    It just makes common sense that property and facility managers be responsible for reducing their risk and liability, preventing this significant source of water pollution by diligently instructing their service providers to not discharge the waste water into the storm drains. Among discharges prohibited to the Storm Drains, listed in Section 301 f the Clean Water Act is waste water from a power (pressure) washer that cleans such things as equipment, a restaurant’s solid waste storage areas, or a parking lot and discharges the process water into a storm drain.

    Any person who conducts pressure washing activities need to manage their waste water, based on the best management practices (BMP’s) established by the local Water Quality Control Agency. With permission from the sanitary district and the property owner, wash water can be discharged into the on site sewer. However, compliance with a sewer discharge permit does not relieve the permittee of its obligation to comply with any or all applicable pretreatment regulations,standards or requirements under local, State and Federal laws. If the waste water contains any significant levels of oil grease and metals, it will need to be pretreated prior to discharging to the on site sewer or it must be hauled by a licensed waste hauler.

    So, yes, keep outdoor hard surfaces cleaned to reduce pollutants from entering our waterways from normal rainfall. But, be sure the waste water generated by pressure washing is collected and properly disposed. Before hiring a service provider, personally assess their equipment. Look for storm drain covers, vacuums, large holding tanks and a waste water recycling system that will enable them to contain, collect and clean their waste water efficiently prior to discharging to the on site sewer. If they do not have a waste water recycling system, ask them for a written manifest and proof of legal disposal at a government approved facility.

    Only through proactive vendor management, will this problem be solved because it is just too big and too much of a maintenance issue to be enforced by beleaguered environmental enforcement teams.

  2. November 4, 2010 12:14 am

    the oil spill in mexico really affected the eco system around that area, it would take years to clean those mess “

  3. December 2, 2010 7:36 pm

    oil spills can really mess up the environment, i hope we can find a very good solution to control oil spills ~~`

  4. August 8, 2011 4:55 pm

    I just added this blog site to my feed reader, great stuff. Can’t get enough!

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