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Costly challenge: How best to deal with stormwater

Aug 01, 2016

by SEAN YODER | The Indiana Gazette

{A White Township crew dug a trench for new stormwater pipes earlier this month next to Kennedy-King Park along Josephine Avenue as part of a larger project in the neighborhood. Old metal pipes were replaced with new, larger plastic ones. Continental Construction handled the bulk of the work in the area. (Jamie Empfield/Gazette)}

Municipalities and environmental groups have been coming together under the banner of the Stormwater Education Partnership to cope with the ever-evolving regulations surrounding stormwater management and the effects of development on water quality.

In the near future, local governments will spend millions of dollars and levy new fees as they bring their aging systems into compliance and improve water quality while also trying to relieve problems like flooding.

Additionally, environmental groups across the U.S. have been encouraging homeowners and businesses to do their part to control stormwater and slowly release it back into streams and the water table.

Locally, such groups play a large part in initiatives that monitor the health of local streams and ensure developers are building responsibly.

The partnership in Indiana County began as a grant through the League of Women Voters that funded a symposium held last spring. It has since evolved into monthly meetings to share information between planners and environmental watchdogs.

The regulatory narrative begins with the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. From there, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was given authority to enforce the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a permitting process to address water pollution by regulating discharges into waterways.

Much of the focus of compliance for governments is on what is commonly known as MS4 regulations, which stands for municipal separate storm system. This requires the splitting off of stormwater flow from sewer systems to prevent backups and overflows at sanitation plants. Stormwater now must be discharged into waterways or absorbed into the ground, and if it’s going into a waterway, it must comply with pollutant discharge regulations.

At the roots of the rules that come down from the federal and state governments are concerns about water quality and the rate of water flow. Stormwater can easily gather harmful pollutants like animal waste, trash and oil. Fast-moving streams that are running high from heavy rains can erode stream banks, harming aquatic life and threatening nearby development or agriculture.

In 1987 the CWA was reauthorized, the scope of NPDES was significantly expanded and stormwater became a focus. It’s the states’ responsibility to enforce the regulations, though the EPA can step in if it suspects state environmental departments aren’t being effective enough.

The MS4 regulations have been applied to Indiana Borough since 2003, though the municipality was designated by the state Department of Environmental Protection and not the federal government. The qualifying data is based on population density and government definitions of urban areas. Those definitions become broader as the years roll on.

Matt Genchur, code enforcement officer at White Township and leader of the SEP, said that because White Township has received notice saying it will soon have to comply with MS4 rules, the township is planning accordingly for the future to avoid fines and improve water quality.

Genchur previously worked for Pennsylvania Rural Water Association, so he has experience with water and wastewater, especially in more isolated and low-population areas.

He said it’s only been in the last few years that the concerns about stormwater have been in the forefront of municipal planning in western Pennsylvania. However, he said successful projects have been undertaken by Pittsburgh-area municipalities, and the SEP has been learning from their examples.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania might also have to abide by MS4 rules, as it is a large developed campus (think also hospitals, military bases and prisons) with a stormwater system all its own with multiple lines and catch basins.

Jason Mackovyak, project manager at IUP, said the university is developing its own stormwater master plan to look at needs across a campus that has much of its own utilities and regularly undertakes large-scale construction projects. The university recently engaged Entech, an engineering firm, to begin developing the plan, and Mackovyak said he hopes it will be completed in 12 to 14 months. A stormwater management plan is required under MS4 regulations.

He said IUP has somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million square feet of impervious surfaces at the main campus in Indiana. Impervious surfaces are any place that rain cannot penetrate that was created through development such as roofs, roads, parking lots and sidewalks. One advantage IUP has is a cutting-edge mapping system, Mackovyak said. Graduate students from geographic information systems, part of the geography department, aid IUP employees in chronicling every possible detail about infrastructure as they are uncovered or constructed. This is an essential part of a planner’s toolbox as incorrect maps can lead to confusion during construction or repairs.

Recently, planners at IUP designated the old McCarthy Hall site as a place for a rain garden, which collects stormwater and runoff and allows it soak slowly into the ground. Such efforts will likely become more common as planners attempt to safely and responsibly discharge their stormwater. White Township already has a rain garden of its own at the township building along Indian Springs Road.

As of now, it’s unclear if IUP will actually be designated under the MS4 regulations, but if Indiana Borough and White Township are, IUP will have to plan accordingly because the campus sits in both municipalities. IUP planners will soon meet with DEP to figure out a course of action and find where they stand on regulations.

Municipalities like White Township and Indiana Borough have a specific set of guidelines for developers in regard to management of stormwater. In private development, it’s not the responsibility of the municipality to outfit a slice of real estate with its own infrastructure, only the lines that generally run under or near municipal and state roads. Often, developers won’t even connect to any kind of public stormwater line but will keep runoff on site in retention ponds or cisterns, though concerns about water quality and amount of flow could change the way the water reaches the ponds.

It is a township or borough’s responsibility to ensure developers are in compliance with the regulations. The Indiana Conservation District will also ensure that developers and contractors are in compliance from an environmental standpoint.

When it comes to monitoring stream health, however, the bulk of work is done by volunteers such as the Evergreen Conservancy or students from IUP, according to Adam Cotchen, district manager at the Indiana County Conservation District.

His office concerns itself with the NPDES compliance, wetland encroachment permitting and providing support for people looking to square away their rainwater. Recently they entered into a memorandum of understanding with Indiana Borough to minimize pollution of waters through earthmoving activities. They will also help with stormwater public education, another requirement under MS4.

Sometimes, the more work a municipality does for regulating its own stormwater, the better it is for its neighbors. Water doesn’t concern itself with map-drawn boundaries. Stormwater from one part of a municipality may flow into another jurisdiction. For example, Chevy Chase in White Township is uphill from neighboring Indiana Borough to the south. Stormwater from Indiana Borough may flow into the IUP campus, and from the IUP campus to parts of lower White Township. The project in Chevy Chase is an example of upgrades to traditional infrastructure that will satisfy regulations and hopefully steady the flow of water into the borough, which is good news for those that live along Marsh Run or in other flood-prone areas.

To fund such large-scale projects, governments in Pennsylvania have been forced to institute new fees or raise taxes and apply for ever-decreasing grants. Neither the federal nor state government provide the means to come into compliance with regulations.

House Bill 1325, signed June 21, allows Class 2 townships in Pennsylvania to levy a stormwater fee without needing to have in place a municipal service authority. A similar bill is working its way through the Legislature, giving boroughs the same power.

White Township has its own municipal authority and in July sent its first quarterly bills with the stormwater management fee. Homes are assessed $2 per month, based on a 3,700-square-foot average of impermeable surfaces at township homes, of which about 10 percent were surveyed to provide a baseline.

Non-single family homes will have their impermeable surface square footage divided by 3,700 to reach an ERU and will be charged $2 per month per ERU.

As of now, Genchur said the stormwater fee is only at about 50 percent of where it could be. At full capacity, the township could expect to bring in about $700,000 per year.

At the county level, planners are working to develop a model stormwater ordinance for smaller municipalities. That, combined with HB 1325, could give small rural municipalities the tools to implement their own stormwater management programs.

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