Stormwater permits have new regulations 'to mimick Mother Nature'

Stormwater permits tailored for Eastern Washington's busiest areas were announced Wednesday, but cities will have about five years to start using the new low-impact development techniques.

"This is the No. 1 water pollution problem in our most populated areas," Ecology department Director Ted Sturdevant told members of the media in a conference call.

Sturdevant said the goal of the upgraded permit is to keep water moving "vertically by mimicking Mother Nature," instead of flowing horizontally as pollutant-laden runoff that is sure to find its way to rivers and bays.

Wednesday's announcement is a reissue of permit regulations first imposed on Eastern Washington communities in 2007, but with a new focus on using what Sturdevant called "low impact development techniques."

Communities will have time to phase in the new regulations that require using vegetation and soil to naturally filter rain water and snow melt.

"Horizontal water moves toxics into rivers and bays, damaging the infrastructure, stream beds and fish habitat," he explained.

"It is a whole lot easier and cheaper to prevent runoff and pollution as we plan our developments, than to try to manage stormwater after the fact," Sturdevant said in a prepared statement.

The new permit gives two years before expanding the coverage area in Yakima County to include the unincorporated Sunnyside urban growth area.

The permit also gives local governments a few years to implement low-impact development practices. But failure to comply by the end of 2017 could trigger state fines of up to $10,000 per violation per day, plus $37,000 per violation per day in federal penalties, Sturdevant said.

The Legislature gave the agency $1 million to help develop and provide training for local governments on how to best use low-impact development as a strategy for managing stormwater runoff, Sturdevant said.

He said the state has more stringent requirements for the wetter, western half of Washington, recognizing that Eastern Washington has different hydrology and precipitation patterns.

But the risk of pollutants in runoff is there, no matter how little the precipitation, he said.

"Regardless of how often it rains, the first storm will flush those pollutants into rivers and bays," he said.

Sturdevant said someone likely will appeal the new regulations, which he said follow federal Environmental Protection Agency rules dating back to 1999.

"We get it that this will cost money, and we know this is a lousy time to ask, but this is about water quality first. It is simply required by federal law," Sturdevant said.

City staffs in Richland and Kennewick have struggled with the state's stormwater runoff rules, noting that it can add costs to monitor runoff and the state provides no money to cover costs in trying to meet the standards.

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com