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"We have failed to communicate importance of addressing stormwater runoff" -Harry Campbell

Jan 30, 2019

Harry Campbell | Press & Journal

On behalf of the conservation community, I extend my sincerest apologies.

Collectively we have failed you, the public, on communicating what science has shown us: that our stormwater infrastructure — the system that collects, concentrates and conveys runoff from built areas — is failing and it’s polluting the water we drink, fish and recreate in. It’s flooding our streets and basements, and washing our land and property away.

Simply stated, when it rains, runoff from hard surfaces such as rooftops, parking lots, streets and even lawns is shuttled to the nearest river or stream, often by underground pipes. Along the way, things like motor oil, pet waste, lawn chemicals and fertilizers, cigarette butts, and garbage, to name just a few, hitch a ride.

With intense rainfall like we saw so much of last year, the sheer volume of water in those pipes — some of which haven’t been maintained or updated for 25, 50, even 100 years — hits our streams hard and fast. It literally blows them out of their banks, causing flooding to roads, downtowns and commercial areas.

To make matters worse, in many older communities, stormwater is combined with raw sewage and when heavy rains overwhelm the system, it often means the combined, untreated waste is discharged to the nearest river or stream. 

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Scientific studies by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have found that this polluted runoff results in more than 3,000 miles of streams damaged because they have too much pollution and, as a result, too little aquatic life. 

We’ve also failed to adequately communicate that there are cost-effective solutions to address this problem. These solutions not only reduce pollution and nuisance flooding, but can help beautify and revitalize communities.

It’s all about replicating nature with things such as street trees, streamside forests, specially designed flower beds called rain gardens, vegetated rooftops, and even porous pavement. 

To help revitalize stormwater infrastructure, roughly 1,600 governments across the United States, including 12 in Pennsylvania, have chosen to establish reasonable stormwater fees. Philadelphia, Lancaster and Hazleton, and Derry and Hampden townships, have instituted polluted runoff fees, so that residents can be part of the local solution. Many others are considering it.

Regional approaches, like the 32-municipality Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority’s Regional Stormwater Management Program, can offer cost-savings that individual municipalities often wouldn’t be able to realize. Similar multi-municipal authorities are either in place or under active exploration in Blair, York and Lebanon counties. 

Most programs offer customers discounts on fees by doing things on their property to reduce the amount of runoff. Customers, for example, can earn credits and reduce quarterly fees by implementing natural solutions.

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A church in Derry Township, Dauphin County, received a discount after volunteers planted 200 trees along a stream on church property. The trees will absorb and filter polluted runoff and help the township reach its required pollution reduction goals.

Passed by Congress in the 1990s as part of updates to the Clean Water Act, and launched in 2003, having to manage polluted runoff from certain sized urban and suburban areas is not new. But as scientific understanding has grown, so have more specific requirements to reduce this pollution to local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

Although many are apt to point the finger at the Chesapeake Bay, let’s be clear — local investments in clean water pay dividends first and foremost locally.

By updating our infrastructure for the 21st century, our communities, cultural heritage and even economy will benefit from cleaner, healthier waters. That’s a legacy worth leaving future generations.

Harry Campbell is Pennsylvania executive director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

© Press & Journal 2019

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