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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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February 2003

Where the law meets the land

New runoff rules tell water where to go.

Natasha Kassulke


With a flash of lightning and crackle of thunder, the rainwater rush is on.

Gutters and downspouts become gushing gateways linking sky to storm sewers.

Water that runs off streets, parking lots, rooftops, lawns and sidewalks may be loaded with pollutants. Storm sewers carry this polluted runoff and sediment untreated to lakes and streams. Many agree that the best solution is to stop this pollution at its source.

Today, polluted runoff from urban areas, combined with runoff from construction sites, farms and roads, is the biggest remaining threat to lake and river quality in Wisconsin.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's latest assessment of Wisconsin waters found this runoff is a major reason why 44 percent of the state's river miles and 61 percent of its lake acreage do not fully support the fish and other aquatic life they should.

EPA studies found that urban storm water runoff, sanitary sewer overflows and combined sewer overflows also are the largest causes of beach closings in the United States. Coastal and Great Lakes community surveys found more than 1,500 beach closings and advisories attributable to storm water runoff in 1998 alone.

Expanding paved areas prevents water from soaking into the ground and replenishing groundwater aquifers. And yet, more than 1.5 million acres of land are developed each year in the United States.

Water gushing from a downspout won't be absorbed into concrete pavement. Urban runoff can be controlled with better landscape, road and housing design. © Robert Queen
Water gushing from a downspout won't be absorbed into concrete pavement. Urban runoff can be controlled with better landscape, road and housing design.

© Robert Queen

Recognizing that urban runoff is harming the Great Lakes and other waters, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) recently redesigned their nonpoint source programs. The Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation also worked with the Department of Natural Resources to develop standards for non-agricultural lands and transportation corridors.

The redesigned programs require not only farmers, but cities, construction sites and road builders to control polluted runoff, explains DNR Nonpoint Source Education Coordinator Carol Holden.

The rules give to the groups some flexibility to meet those standards. Farmers, who often get a lot of conservation advice from their city neighbors, are now finding they have plenty to teach urban residents when it comes to conservation, Holden says.

The state rules parallel a federal requirement that many municipalities – about 250 in Wisconsin – have to apply for storm water permits by March 2003 and adopt erosion control and storm water management ordinances.

The pollution reductions aim to make 3,000 more river miles boatable and fishable nationwide. Storm water controls also may mitigate flood damage and enhance waterfronts.

New rules specifically require: public education on storm water impacts, public involvement, steps to detect and eliminate illicit discharges, controls to stem storm runoff from construction sites, methods to manage storm water from both new and redevelopment, and pollution prevention from municipal operations. EPA estimates these steps will annually cost local governments $297 million to carry out.

In the first phase of these rules back in 1990, cities of more than 100,000 people needed permits to send their storm water to streams and lakes. This second phase applies to cities and urban areas with more than 50,000 residents. To curb storm water, communities have to become more expert and more aggressive about activities like terracing, tree planting, composting, mulching, creating wildlife habitat along with wetlands and ponds, water conservation, nutrient management, and even pet waste clean-up and disposal, explains Roger Bannerman, a DNR nonpoint source researcher.

Historically, Bannerman says, cities "solved" storm water by moving it away as quickly as possible. This has lead to sewer and tunnel systems, and plenty of paving to get the water out of here – fast. The result is that in many places rain no longer does what it is supposed to do. It isn't filtering into the ground.

"Most landscapers, engineers and people who deal with water think of it (storm water) as something to be gotten rid of," explains Toby Hemenway, associate editor of The Permaculture Activist. "They want to catch it off their roof, put it into the sewer system and get rid of it quickly; whereas, nature looks at water as a precious resource."

Hemenway suggests keeping the water where it does the most good – in the soil for as long as possible.

"There is a problem when urban streams are viewed as corridors to convey polluted runoff," Bannerman agrees. "These streams are being choked with pollutants and sediments and property values drop when people build their homes next to these streams only to find them flooded after a large rainfall."

University of Wisconsin-Madison civil and environmental engineering Professor Ken Potter has studied the effect of impervious areas on water flow and volume for 20 years and is worried about declining groundwater levels. By redirecting storm water back into the lawns, he says, we also can replenish this precious groundwater supply.

"As we have more impervious surfaces, we see lake levels increase," Potter says. "Storms just like those that we had in the 1930s are now producing much more runoff because of all the parking lots, roads and other pavement." At the same time, groundwater levels are declining, Potter says, because storm water is no longer seeping through the ground at the same rate.

"We are in serious trouble if our green space doesn't absorb this runoff," Potter says. "It's essential that people are working on this at home because detention ponds won't solve all of our problems."

One solution is to allow water to infiltrate as close to the runoff source as possible.

"We need more landowners to learn about innovations like rain gardens, and infiltration trenches," Potter says.

Another problem is that many lawns are turf or sod and water absorbs slowly because the underlying soil is so compacted.

"Now we are looking at strategies for undoing the damage from compacted lawns," Potter says. Options include deep tilling and using a plow to work in compost layers that act as sponges.

Building storm water controls especially makes sense in new developments and can be affordable when one can buy plants in bulk and use onsite equipment as the project develops.

An advantage of rain gardens – shallow depressions housing plants and soils that slow and clean water as it seeps into the ground – is that landowners can retrofit their yards and neighborhoods.

Today, Bannerman's passion for the topic is reflected in his own lawn, which features rain gardens that attract butterflies, birds and bees to his home. And he is not alone. He has found rapt audiences when he speaks to neighborhood organizations, garden groups and scientific symposiums on the topic.

"There is a problem here," Bannerman says, "but the solution can create areas that are kinder to the environment, cost less to maintain and are more inviting places to live. If we can make our urban areas more pleasant places to live, then we won't need urban sprawl. With some of these storm water management practices, we can change how our cities look for the better."

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Produced by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

FUNDED IN PART BY THE WISCONSIN COASTAL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM. Financial assistance for this project was provided by the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended, administered by the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pursuant to Grant #NA17OZ2357 and the WISCONSIN COASTAL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM.

THE WISCONSIN COASTAL MANAGEMENT PROGRAM, part of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, and overseen by the WISCONSIN COASTAL MANAGEMENT COUNCIL, was established in 1978 to preserve, protect and manage the resources of the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior coastline for this and future generations.