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SCIENTISTS and policymakers studying Puget Sound have reached a broad consensus: If we want to recover the Sound — and the salmon, orcas and other resources we hold dear — we will need to solve the problem of polluted stormwater runoff (water flowing over urban streets, rooftops and parking lots that carries toxic pollutants into streams, rivers and the sound). It is the single-largest source of toxic pollution in Puget Sound today.

Fortunately, there is a solid consensus around both the problem as well as the solutions. Whether local leaders have the will to implement those solutions, however, remains an open question.

This year, the collective commitment by our local cities and counties to recovering Puget Sound will be tested like never before. Because of their stormwater discharges, most Puget Sound jurisdictions over a certain size are regulated under a provision of the Clean Water Act, which requires them to reduce pollution to public waterways. In 2008, a state appeals board ruled that in order to comply with the law, communities will have to embrace “low impact development” — or LID — approaches to control stormwater pollution. The transition to LID is supposed to be completed across Puget Sound over the coming year or two.

Also known as green stormwater infrastructure, LID is an approach to managing runoff that mimics nature’s ability to store and infiltrate rainfall where it lands, rather than let it run over roads and surfaces, picking up pollutants. Many people are already familiar with LID management techniques, such as pervious concrete and rain gardens, which are affordable, well-tested and very effective techniques.

But LID does more than that. It calls for rethinking our approach to development, generally. Rather than sprawling subdivisions that clear off all the vegetation and soil from a site and replace them with concrete, LID calls for leaving more natural vegetation in place and reducing the footprint of developed areas. The site generates less runoff in the first place and the remainder can infiltrate into groundwater, as nature intended.

Study after study shows that LID works far better than conventional approaches to stormwater pollution, which seek mainly to route runoff as quickly as possible into rivers, streams and bays without giving much thought to the impacts. Untreated stormwater can kill salmon in three hours, but simple filtration through soil vastly improves water quality. Even better, LID has proved to cost less than engineering-intensive conventional approaches. And LID projects — which feature more green space and natural vegetation — have proved to be more attractive and appealing, improving property values.

After many years of foot-dragging and delay, the state has finally set a deadline requiring LID for all new and redevelopment construction projects in urban areas. The state’s biggest cities and counties have until the end of the year to transition their development codes to require LID in all development situations; smaller jurisdictions have additional time.

Cities and counties will be required to revise their codes to reduce impervious surfaces, protect more vegetation and generally overhaul their codes to eliminate existing rules that block LID implementation, such as requirements for wide roads or prohibitions on denser development.

These are not small changes — they represent a paradigm shift in how we approach development in Puget Sound. If these new requirements are taken seriously, the payoff would be a healthier Sound and recovering salmon and orca populations. These changes are also required under the permits issued to cities and counties under the Clean Water Act and if they are not taken seriously, federal law calls for tens of thousands of dollars per day in penalties.

The choice is clear: It’s long past time for Puget Sound’s jurisdictions to embrace LID as a fundamental part of our future.

[Chris Wilke is the executive director at Puget Soundkeeper and sits on the Puget Sound Partnership Ecosystem Coordination Board, the Puget Sound Harbor Safety Committee and the Waterkeeper Alliance board of directors.]

 

 

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