Last week marked the 10th anniversary of stormwater rules that have become a mild obsession in the development and redevelopment worlds. That obsession really grew as California and the entire east coast came to grips with how we are treating our coastlines like toilets.
In the past weeks, I received two reports that begin to put the stormwater/redevelopment relationship into better view. The first is from Rebecca Winer-Skonovd, a new UC Davis graduate who wrote her thesis on whether or not increasingly complex stormwater quality regulations impact affordable housing. The second is a new report from NRDC called Creating Clean Water Cash Flows. Both are summarized below.
Since 2003, most medium and big cities have been required to implement stormwater management rules and regulations for new development and redevelopment. In the past, builders could dump stormwater into the curb and gutter, but no more. Now regulations direct Best Management Practices (BMPs) for managing the quantity and (in some cases quality) of stormwater runoff that leaves their building site.
However, as implementation ensued, some of us looked on in horror as the new rules allowed sprawl development to claim green cred even as infill developers raised alarm bells. At the Congress for the New Urbanism, we formed a group, Rainwater-in-Context, to draw attention to unintended consequences and work towards better rules (our letter on better runoff management for cities is here.)
While we feel we’ve made progress, there are still some high profile needs:
- The Clean Water Act’s Bias for individual site practice- By controlling for imperviousness on a site-by-site basis, the preventative aspects of new urbanism and smart growth – like redevelopment and compact, walkable districts are not recognized - and are often punished. It should also be noted that the preventative aspects written into the Clean Water Act, namely anti-degradation, are weak compared to the stormwater rules. This results in legal action that bears down on urban areas while doing little to address massive land conversion upstream.
- Current regulations hinder shared practices - Compact development relies on efficient land use, which relies on sharing facilities among sites, including stormwater. The 2003 rules included a provision for “alternative” compliance, though this came with strings and process attached. Local regulations and zoning codes further add hurdles for shared practices. Worst of all, there has been push back in the environmental community for whatever reasons.
For urbanists, both of these needs are important. We don’t work with individual sites (that is how sprawl works). We work with interconnected aspects of places and flows.
Rebecca's thesis is clever: she looked at projects built before the requirements and compared the costs of old stormwater versus hypothetical combinations of BMPs needed to meet the new, stricter rules.
The main takeaways are:
- The biggest hurdle is financing, followed by site constraints and neighborhood opposition that bedevil any developer undertaking urban infill.
- Some projects could have spent LESS money with a better selection of practices.
- Several affordable housing projects exceeded regulatory requirements, in part to get financing points. Housing authorities that also manage the built project also have an incentive to consider long term savings from reduced stormwater fees (i.e. initial costs are offset by maintenance savings).
- Thoughtful selection of BMPs helps reduce costs (both installation and long term maintenance).
- Recommendations: (1) New financing mechanisms for affordable housing, (2) Credits for higher density development, and (3) Plan at the sub-watershed scale in order to identify the best candidates for off-site mitigation and shared runoff management.
The Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) the Nature Conservancy, and EKO Asset Management Partners have joined forces to create the NatLab, or Natural Infrastructure Finance Laboratory. Their new report, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, is Creating Clean Water Cash Flows, which covers financial tools for green infrastructure, including the use of vacant properties. The Full Report and 10-page Issue Brief are here.
There are a lot of gems in this report; here are some highlights:
- Stormwater fees on existing properties are powerful; however, fee reductions have to be less than costs incurred by property owners.
- Public policy can play a role in supporting project aggregation, offsite mitigation and credit trading programs, and subsidies for a portion of the cost.
- Downspout disconnection onto landscaped areas is the cheapest bang-for-buck measure, though is more applicable on residential sites than commercials ones. Thus, a tradable credit that allows commercial owners to pay for a homeowner’s downspout disconnection is key.
- The use of third party institutions and public-private partnerships will be needed to cost-effectively manage a system with trades, credits and shared BMPs.
The bottom line is (1) most of this seems to be driven where a stormwater fee (and credits against that fee) exist and (2) after a bumpy start, shared BMPs are enjoying recognition as a premier practice for managing runoff, but require a new kind of management structure.
There is still a lot of work to do. It is still not totally clear if rules are stopping developers because we are only hearing from those who made it work. We have no way to track developers who can't make the math work and abandon a project before they get to any permit desk. More importantly, great urban stormwater systems will only come out of great planning. That is the only way to forecast, design and apportion responsibility among multiple property owners and various municipal Departments. This seems to be a message in both of these great pieces. By the way, EPA intends to issue new draft rules in June, which may include more measures targeted to the eneds of urban patterns.