With just a bit more warmth, streets and sidewalks across the area will turn to brown slush. Apart from melted snow, this city juice is loaded with everything from asbestos brake dust to motor oil to dog poop.
Much of it will drain straight into the Spokane River.
This pollution-laden cocktail, known as storm water runoff, is considered the single biggest threat to urban waterways in Washington. The state wants it cleaned up.
On Wednesday, the Washington Department of Ecology launched new storm water regulations for 101 cities across the state, including Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake. The new storm water permits are fairly light on specifics – mostly, they give the cities a five-year time frame in which to educate the public, map their storm drain systems and develop custom-tailored plans to reduce pollution from storm water.
Cities will also be expected to clamp down on soil runoff from building sites. Environmental groups say the changes are a step in the right direction. The Association of Washington Cities, however, issued a statement expressing concern over the potential cost of the rules. It’s unclear how expensive the changes will be for Spokane, said Lloyd Brewer, Spokane’s environmental program manager.
The city has already started adopting storm water management practices, Brewer said. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of city streets – mostly in north Spokane – drain directly into the Spokane River. These storm drains send about 1.5 billion gallons of untreated runoff into the river each year, Brewer said.
This untreated storm water is believed to be a major factor in the river’s dangerously high levels of PCBs and flame retardants, not to mention oxygen-robbing phosphorus. The city is looking at ways of capturing and storing this runoff for later treatment, Brewer said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has included $26 million in her proposed state budget to help implement the rules, including $9 million directly earmarked to help local governments comply with the permits.
A similar process is also moving forward in Idaho, under the direction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency is working with local governments to develop city-specific storm water permits. A proposal for Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls is expected to be unveiled in April, said Misha Vakoc, an EPA employee working on the plans.
The sharpest criticism of Washington’s new storm water permits has come from the construction industry. For the past year, builders have already been required to obtain a state storm water permit for any project that disturbs an acre or more of land or a project of nearly any size within a subdivision. The new municipal requirement is expected to mean another layer of permits and costs, said Jodi Slavik, attorney for the Building Industry Association of Washington.
“This is so impactful to so many builders that are struggling to get by right now,” Slavik said. “The process is incredibly lengthy and burdensome. The paperwork associated with it is incredible.”
The association is suing the state over the construction permit rules. Slavik said the permits add at least $5,000 to the cost of any project. “We do care about these things,” she said. “What we oppose is the unnecessary layering of processes and costs.”
The state is working to change state laws to eliminate any overlap, said Bill Moore, storm water policy coordinator for the Department of Ecology. The new municipal permits have been in the works for years, he added, and are simply an effort to begin addressing a complicated problem.
A generation ago, the biggest threat facing waterways came from untreated waste from factories and raw sewage. Back then, “the solutions were known and the ability to assign responsibility was known,” Moore said. “Now, the major threat to our water bodies is urban storm water runoff. That’s a tougher nut to crack.”
Rick Eichstaedt, an environmental attorney with Spokane’s Center for Justice, said cleaning up storm water will not only benefit fish in the Spokane River but also help rid the river of PCBs, an industrial compound that causes cancer and liver damage. Eichstaedt hopes the city will focus on preventing dirty runoff, rather than the more expensive solution of trying to purify polluted storm water.
Street sweeping is one answer, Eichstaedt said. So is limiting the use of phosphorus-rich lawn fertilizers and implementing more environmentally friendly building codes, such as encouraging the installation of permeable sidewalks and parking areas that reduce runoff.
“It’s certainly a good step forward from where we’ve been, which is absolutely no regulation of storm water,” Eichstaedt said. “Something’s better than nothing.”