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Report offers solutions to stormwater damage

OHIO researcher tapped to provide input to U.S. EPA

Monica Chapman Feb 16, 2009


Report offers solutions to stormwater damage

OHIO researcher tapped to provide input to U.S. EPA

Monica Chapman February 16, 2009

To many, a city skyline holds an unequivocal lure. But the dazzle of big city life comes with a price. In the case of urban stormwater, the problem seems to slip quite literally underfoot at the expense of the nation's waterways.

As the concrete jungle continues to swell, Mother Nature's natural filtration system has been nearly eradicated in the densest areas of urban America. The once slow and steady filter of stormwater has been expedited through manmade channels, resulting in pollution, flooding, erosion and potential harm to aquatic life.

Today, nearly every urban stream system in the U.S. falls short of the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act goals, according to the National Research Council, whose aims include improving government decision-making and public policy. But with the help of Ohio University environmental researcher Ed Rankin, a national task force has developed a plan to remedy the situation.

As a member of the council, Rankin provided input to the U.S. EPA on revamping the nation's stormwater management program. Rankin's views are included in the committee's final report, "Urban Stormwater Management in the United States," which is expected to be released Feb. 16. If the EPA takes the recommendations to heart, the report could curb a significant source of hydrological problems by affecting the way states and local entities construct stormwater permits.

"In the past decisions were not made on a scientific basis; it was more based on the interests of stakeholders," Rankin said. "We're hoping to take a more biological approach -- providing unbiased scientific analysis so the EPA can approach stormwater permitting with sound science."

Stormwater issues

According to the report in brief, "Urban stormwater is estimated to be the primary source of impairment for 13 percent of assessed rivers, 18 percent of lakes, and 32 percent of estuaries -- significant numbers given that the urban areas cover only 3 percent of the land mass of the United States."

In an attempt to address the role of stormwater in water quality, Congress added to the Clean Water Act in 1987. But the regulations -- which focus primarily on reducing pollutants from sewage and industrial waste -- do not address the larger problem of stormwater run-off, according to the EPA.

In response, the EPA asked the council to review its current stormwater program. Formed in 2006, an interdisciplinary committee of 14 met six times during the past two years to study stormwater programs and discuss solutions to the problems of stormwater run-off. As a fish ecologist and a past employee of the Ohio EPA, Rankin was among the appointees, which also included engineers, water quality scientists and biologists.

Proposed solutions

The committee concluded that a new permitting structure based on watershed boundaries -- not political boundaries -- is needed to curb the degradation of the nation's waterways. Currently, all permitting is done at the state or local level. If the EPA takes the committee's advice, that responsibility would be transferred to the municipal level.

Additional recommendations included conservation efforts, minimizing pavement cover and retrofitting urban areas with features that hold and stream stormwater. According to Rankin, the report also serves as a "how to" guide, providing local decision-makers with a sound scientific basis for issues related to stormwater run-off.

National implications

The potential cost of an urban stream and stormwater management upheaval is steep.

"Billions of dollars will be spent throughout the country over the next two decades to implement the recommendations U.S. EPA is expected to roll out as a result of this committee's work," said Scott Miller, director of energy and environmental programs at Ohio University's Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, where Rankin conducts his research.

According to Rankin, the goal of the report is to create an effective system that improves water quality without wasting resources. "Part of that is to determine what is a feasible goal," he said.

Rankin points to dense urban areas, where the possibility of meeting clean water act standards seems highly unlikely.

It may not be possible to achieve the highest water quality standards in all cities, but dense development has some environmental advantages, Rankin said. For example, dense development may serve to reduce urban sprawl and isolate the sources of water pollution, allowing for better protection of high-quality areas.

The question, according to Rankin, is whether to strive for the improbable goal of meeting clean water standards across the board, or to be more selective with conservation efforts. Rankin believes the outcome of this tug-of-war between the idealistic and realistic will shape the future of stormwater programs in the U.S.

"(The report) brings into discussion those sorts of decisions that have to be made," he added.

In addition to helping legislators analyze the problem with a realistic lens, Rankin said the report will lend to better planning and development of future urban areas.

"[This report] gives you a much better framework for deciding where you can urbanize without effect and what's an appropriate way to develop different watersheds," he said. "The idea is to set up a biological way of monitoring and decision-making that helps you identify your sensitive areas."

Implications for Ohio

When it comes to stormwater management, Rankin said Ohio is ahead of the curve -- especially in terms of Midwest states on using biological data to manage storm water. Ohio is one of the few states that has established biocriteria, or biological standards for water.

"It's surprising that, although the Clean Water Act requires states to link water quality standards to the fish and bugs that live in the streams and rivers, many states conduct these analyses in just a very cursory manner," Miller said. "Ohio's biological assessment procedures are a model that other states are beginning to study and adapt to."

Rankin is no stranger to Ohio's watersheds. Before coming to Ohio University, he worked for 15 years at the Ohio EPA where he was a chief biologist in the Ecological Assessment Unit in Groveport.

Rankin came to Ohio University in 2003 to focus his time and energy on his research. As a senior research associate with the Voinovich School, Rankin is currently studying the relationship between the fish and insects that constitute the food chain with the overall health of the watershed.

His research recently received fuel through an $860,000 U.S. EPA grant, which Rankin helped the Voinovich School secure. He said his national committee involvement will aid his ability to secure funding for future research related to stormwater issues in Ohio.

Rankin is the second Voinovich staff member to have served on a national academy's advisory committee. Recently-retired Chris Yoder served on an advisory committee in 2001-2002 to provide guidance to US EPA on how to link pollution standards to biological assessment (sampling fish and bugs).

"Ed's work on this committee, coupled with Chris Yoder's service on that earlier advisory committee suggest that the National Academies and the U.S. EPA think very highly on the Voinovich School's research," Miller said. "We're very pleased to be able to lend our credibility and expertise to this very important project."