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Stormwater Matters

Our March 2021 Newsletter Article

Most of us don’t give much, if any, thought to stormwater, unless we just had a car splash us with it while we stand on a curb, or watch rain flood city streets during a storm. Even then, people rarely stop to think about the environmental implications and impacts of failing to manage stormwater effectively. Yet ever since we started working in the field of environmental law, we've been working on stormwater matters. Why? Because it matters.

What Is Stormwater?

Stormwater, also known as urban runoff, is precipitation accumulated to such a degree that the ground soil can no longer absorb it. Stormwater can also be created by precipitation that builds upon impermeable surfaces, forcing the buildup to flow uncontrolled. If not treated, which it rarely is, the runoff flows into places it wouldn't ordinarily reach, like nearest sewer and from there, to the nearest waterway and beyond into larger bodies of water.

How Do Hazardous Chemicals And Pollutants End up in Stormwater?

On its journey as rain, running down hills, and through gutters, the water picks up oil, grease, and other pollutants, including chemicals and toxins on the ground. These pollutants can come from surrounding construction, vehicle emissions, industrial activities, and even pet waste. The stormwater carries those hazardous substances into the surrounding bodies of water. As a result, failure to monitor and effectively control stormwater running off of buildings and over properties ultimately disrupts the area in some manner. The harmful effects of stormwater can include harming plant and animal life in our rivers, streams and oceans, and damaging the quality of the water used in the surrounding communities.

How Is Stormwater Managed And Monitored?

Monitoring stormwater is necessary to measure whether the efforts to minimize pollution and maximize California’s water supply is successful. Multiple levels of government play a role in monitoring stormwater. On the national level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposes minimum national standards and procedures under the Clean Water Act’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program. The program regulates entities that discharge pollutants into the waters of the United States. While the law originates with the federal government, individual states may handle its implementation: issuing NPDES permits, managing administrative matters associated with the program, and exercising its enforcement.

In California, the State and its nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards enforce the NPDES program and monitor compliance by permit holders. An NPDES permit is required for any municipality and public or private entity discharging pollutants into the waters of the United States, a very broad category covering tens of thousands of California businesses. The permit does a number of things. The permit: 1) limits what can be discharged; 2) dictates how the discharge is monitored and reported; and 3) requires implementing specific measures to protect the local population’s health and water quality.

Anyone with an NPDES permit is required to follow a number of protocols, which taken as a whole, serve to prevent actual or threatened illegal discharges from leaving a property. Some examples of these regulations include: keeping adequate records of certain materials used at the facility, monitoring pollutant discharges, teaching employees how to properly review onsite measures mitigating stormwater runoff, and regularly reporting to the Water Board to prove compliance. In addition, California businesses with Standard Industrial Classification codes, the largest source of urban water pollution, must provide proof they have an NPDES permit in order to obtain or renew a business license in California.

Properly monitored, controlled, and collected stormwater can become a harnessed resource, which is especially important in California and other states struggling with stable access to a sufficient water supply. Recognizing this, the varying agencies with oversight of regulating stormwater have been expanding their approach to go beyond simply controlling the pollutants and polluters. They are also interested in capturing stormwater for storage and future use, to irrigate landscape and agriculture, for example.

Adopting these policies and strategies assist California authorities in preventing damage caused by stormwater as well as improving the quality of the stormwater collected. Given California’s persistent struggles with water shortage and water quality, these measures, coupled with the NPDES program, are creating a foundation for a future of a clean, adequate water supply for the state.

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