EPA Calls on Municipalities, Developers To Use 'Green Infrastructure' for Discharges

The Environmental Protection Agency said April 29 it “strongly encourages and supports” the use of permeable pavements, grassy swales, and urban wetlands to manage stormwater and sewer overflows under permitting and enforcement programs.

In a joint memorandum, Nancy Stoner, EPA acting assistant administrator for water, and Cynthia Giles, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, outlined EPA's “green infrastructure” strategy for permitting and enforcement. The memo was sent to EPA regional administrators as well as the agency's office and division directors at the offices of water and enforcement and compliance assurance.

They said EPA is calling for the use of green infrastructure approaches to managing wet weather events, such as stormwater overflows into sewer drains, but EPA stopped short of mandating it.

Moreover, Stoner and Giles said, “The Office of Water and the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance are committed to working with interested communities and water resource managers to successfully incorporate green infrastructure into National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, as well as remedies designed to address noncompliance with the Clean Water Act, to better manage both stormwater runoff and sewer overflows.”

Natural Retention, Absorption.

According to EPA, green infrastructure reduces stormwater runoff volumes and reduces peak flows by utilizing the natural retention and absorption capabilities of vegetation and soils.

The joint memorandum, titled Protecting Water Quality with Green Infrastructure in EPA Water Permitting and Enforcement Programs, was released by EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe as part of the agency's overarching plan, A Strategic Agenda to Protect Waters and Build More Livable Communities through Green Infrastructure, to encourage communities to manage rainwater as a resource.

The strategy focuses on community partnerships, education and information exchange, financing and clarifying the use of this approach within a regulatory and enforcement context.

The green infrastructure strategy comes less than a week after EPA published a proposed NPDES permit for the construction and development industry to reduce stormwater discharges, which are sources of oil, grease, pesticides, and other substances during heavy rains.

The proposed permit would require stormwater measures to be implemented to curb erosion and sediment runoff, prevent pollution at construction sites, and monitoring of discharges (42 ER 935, 4/29/11).

EPA's April 29 memo reinforces the agency's commitment to green infrastructure and to its use among developers and municipalities seeking stormwater discharge permits.

Multiple Benefits of Green Infrastructure.

“Given the multiple benefits associated with green infrastructure, EPA encourages the use of green approaches to stormwater runoff and sewer overflow management to the maximum extent possible,” wrote Stoner and Giles.

The April 29 memo was hailed by Benjamin Grumbles, EPA's former assistant administrator for water, as an “important step forward and a worthy investment of EPA's time and effort, given the water, energy, climate, and quality of life benefits.”

He told BNA that his goal, as president of the Clean Water America Alliance, is to change “the paradigm from gray to green, so we're enthused about EPA's energy and attention being devoted to an updated and expanded green infrastructure strategy.”

On Earth Day 2007, when Grumbles was head of EPA's Office of water, the agency signed a green infrastructure pact in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, when Stoner was the group's clean water project director; the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators; American Rivers; and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA).

Swales, Rain Barrels, Urban Wetlands.

That pact formalized the use of grassy swales, rain barrels, and small urban wetlands to capture polluted stormwater runoff from paved roads and buildings and to minimize the threat of sewer overflows (38 ER 970, 4/27/07).

Nathan Gardner-Andrews, NACWA's general counsel, was equally pleased with EPA's strategy and particularly the memo.

“The memo acknowledges the appropriate way that green infrastructure can be used without being overly prescriptive,” Gardner-Andrews told BNA. He added that many of NACWA's member utilities are already using green infrastructure to address wet weather overflows and to improve water quality.

Gardner-Andrews noted that EPA mentioned the $3 billion settlement with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District that requires at least $42 million be spent on using green infrastructure methods to combat sewer overflows (41 ER 2878, 12/31/10).

Green Versus Gray.

Alexandra Dunn, ASIWPCA's executive director and counsel, told BNA she was “encouraged” that EPA is spending more time on green infrastructure, but “a little disappointed” with the joint memo because there remains a “disconnect” between a great public policy statement and the “meat and potatoes business of permitting.”

“We were really hoping that EPA would make a very strong statement on using green infrastructure in enforcement matters because enforcement has been one of those areas where green infrastructure has been included as a supplemental project” in settlements reached with sewer districts.

Dunn said EPA's enforcement division has always given priority to gray solutions, those requiring use of concrete, to manage sewer and stormwater overflows than, for example, planting trees or developing urban wetlands.

The problem with requiring green infrastructure is accountability, and the challenge lies in implementing it on a day-to-day basis, Dunn said. “Gray has always been more reliable than green,” she said.

In addition to releasing the joint memorandum and plan, Perciasepe released a list of 10 cities that have agreed to work with EPA on implementing green infrastructure approaches to managing stormwater runoff and sewer overflows. They are Austin, Texas; Boston; Cleveland; Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Los Angeles; Puyallup, Wash.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.

By Amena H. Saiyid

The EPA memorandum issued April 29, Protecting Water Quality with Green Infrastructure in EPA Water Permitting and Enforcement Programs, is available at http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/gi_memo_protectingwaterquality.pdf.

EPA's green infrastructure plan, Strategic Agenda To Protect Waters and Build More Livable Communities Through Green Infrastructure, is available at http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/gi_agenda_protectwaters.pdf.

Also available is the list of 10 communities that will work with EPA on implementing green infrastructure strategies at http://www.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/gi_partner_organizations.pdf.