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Friday, January 22, 2010

Curbing Stormwater Pollution Cleaning Up Washington’s Toxic Runoff

Fascinating and clear Report from Sightline Institute on the problems and solutions we face on Stormwater Polution.
Lisa Stiffler has a great record as a crusading environmental rporter from the late great PI.
Eric de Place is an expert from the Sightline Institute.

Curbing Stormwater Pollution
Cleaning Up Washington’s Toxic Runoff

Lisa Stiffler and Eric de Place
January 21, 2010

One Coho salmon does a flopping dance of death atop the creek’s surface. Another swims in dazed circles, then limply drifts downstream. A third lies on its side, mouth gaping open and shut, fins splayed.1 In Seattle’s Longfellow Creek, researchers at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center found that nearly four out of five female fish died with a belly full of eggs, perishing before they could spawn.

2 The culprit in this story is the most mundane of villains: the rain. As rainwater streams off roofs and over pavement, it mixes a toxic cocktail of oil, grease, antifreeze, and heavy metals from cars; pesticides lethal to aquatic insects and fish; fertilizers that stoke algal blooms; soap; and bacteria from pet and farm-animal waste. A heavy rainfall delivers this potent shot of pollutants straight into streams and water bodies— threatening everything from tiny herring to the region’s iconic orcas. Stormwater doesn’t match the traditional image of pollution. There are no factory smokestacks belching waste, no pipes with a steady trickle of noxious effluent. Despite appearances, stormwater packs a wallop. Runoff from streets and highways long ago surpassed industry as the number one source for petroleum and other toxic chemicals that wash into the Northwest’s rivers, lakes, and bays.

3 Today, scientists fear that if runoff pollution continues unchecked, it could wipe out some of the region’s urban and suburban salmon runs.

4 In addition to this environmental toll, stormwater runoff carries a steep price tag. Stormwater
triggers flooding and landslides, causing millions of dollars worth of property damage. Cities and
counties in Washington spend more than a quarter billion dollars a year trying to control and clean contaminated runoff.

5 Stormwater threatens to make drinking water undrinkable and vast beds of shellfish unsafe to eat. Fully addressing the region’s stormwater woes will require significant investments, a modernization of building codes, and tougher restrictions on sprawling development. Cities and counties in Washington spend more than a quarter-billion dollars a year trying to control and clean up contaminated stormwater runoff.
{Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 2
In 2010, Washington’s leaders will have two key opportunities to turn the tide. The state Legislature can find a way during the current legislative session to help pay for stormwater fixes, including “low-impact development,” the most affordable and
effective way to curb polluted runoff. Later in the year, the state also plans to update its stormwater regulations, offering a second opportunity to improve stormwater management.

But in order to understand the potential in these opportunities, we need to look
more closely at what the region is up against.

Rivers of runoff
Ten bathtubs full of water. That’s how much rain pours off one average-size house during a good-sized drenching. In a typical year in central Puget Sound, approximately 26,600 gallons of stormwater rush into the gutters and streams from that single home.

6 And there are more than 1.5 million houses in the state, as well as countless more apartments, condos, warehouses, offices, stores, and other buildings.

7 When the rain runs off that home’s roof—and its driveway, sidewalk, and lawn—it flows into a
labyrinth of stormwater infrastructure. Seattle alone has hundreds of miles of storm-drain pipes and
thousands of storm drains and catch basins.

8 From the pipes and gutters, torrents of water typically flow into creeks and rivers that empty into lakes and
bays—most often without any treatment. In some places the stormwater system actually merges with
the sewer system. During downpours, runoff can overwhelm the sewers, sending massive volumes of untreated sewage
pouring into the Snohomish and Skagit rivers, Lake Washington, and Puget Sound. In November 2009, for example, the combined sewer in Port Angeles dumped more than 25 million gallons of sewage and stormwater into the city’s bay.

9 Sometimes the stormwater infrastructure simply backs up, flooding streets and basements. Seattle recently identified more than 600 privately-owned properties at risk of flooding, a risk that goes beyond property damage.10 In 2006, a woman in the
city’s Madison Valley neighborhood drowned when her basement suddenly filled with filthy stormwater during a downpour.

11 In 2009, a dozen homeowners in the same neighborhood sued the city. They alleged that Seattle officials failed to take action to prevent repeated flooding of runoff tainted with sewage, mercury, arsenic, and other
noxious and dangerous contaminants.

12 Stormwater’s costly and toxic cocktail
What falls as rain reaches Puget Sound loaded with deadly chemicals. Petroleum is the Sound’s largest pollutant from stormwater runoff. But the runoff is also chock-full of other chemicals, including copper from the brakes on cars and pesticides sprinkled on roofs and lawns that threaten salmon at very low concentrations.

13 For other harmful (problems)
In November 2009 the combined sewer in Port Angeles dumped more than 25 million gallons of sewage
and stormwater into the city’s bay.{Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 3
chemicals, including lead, mercury, and plasticizers called phthalates, stormwater is
now out-polluting the big industrial facilities that were long believed to be the worst
environmental offenders.

14 In all, approximately 14 million pounds of heavy metals, flame retardants, dioxins, oil and grease, and other dangerous pollutants are washing into the Sound each year—and that’s a conservative estimate.

15 This deadly concoction helped earn the region’s orcas the unfortunate distinction of
being “among the most PCB-contaminated marine mammals in the world,” according
to Canadian scientists.

16 The banned chemicals are long lasting in the environment and accumulate over time in wildlife, harming their immune function, reproduction, and brain development. PCBs and other stormwater pollutants are among the top threats to
the survival of the orcas, a federally protected endangered species.

17 Polluted stormwater puts drinking water supplies at risk too. Runoff is the primary
source of dangerous chemicals that contaminate Lake Whatcom, Bellingham’s sole source of drinking water. As new houses pop up around the lake, the city’s leaders are struggling to keep up with the growing volumes of runoff. Bellingham and Whatcom County combined have spent more than $5 million in stormwater-related capital
improvements, plus $20 million in land acquisition to limit development.

18 Yet the lake contains levels of mercury and phosphorus that exceed safe levels.

19 Stormwater also imperils Puget Sound’s world-renowned shellfish industry. Of
the 95 places where enterprises harvest oysters, clams, and other shellfish, more than one-third had elevated levels of
fecal waste in 2007, waste that is often traced to tainted stormwater runoff or failed septic systems.

20 Over the past decade, the gross revenue earned by Washington’s shellfish
industry fell by two thirds to $55 million in 2008. Research from the University of
Washington suggests that pollution-triggered harvest closures are a significant cause of
the industry’s decline.

21 Recreational harvest of the sea’s bounty is also suffering. Shellfish gathering has long been a tradition for many Northwest families, but Health Department officials say the entire stretch of shoreline from north of Everett to south of Tacoma is unsafe
for beachgoers to gather shellfish. Stormwater and sewage plants have polluted it too much.

22 As sprawling development and the added stormwater that comes with it
continue, the battle to protect shellfish from runoff will grow more urgent. “It’s like the guy with the finger in the dike,” said Bob Woolrich, a manager with the Health Department’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection. “They keep improving
the dike, but there keeps being more water to stop.” Bellingham and Whatcom County combined have spent more than
$5 million in stormwater-related improvements. Yet the lake contains levels of mercury and phosphorus
that exceed safe levels.{Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 4

Putting a LID on stormwater
A stroll down a stretch of 2nd Avenue NW in Seattle is almost a walk in the park. The
slightly meandering residential street is lined with wide strips of native grasses, small shrubs, and trees. Along the shoulder, interspersed among parking spots, are ponds and swales—gentle depressions—that fill with water during a downpour. You won’t find sludgy gutters brimming with muddy water and trash, or deserts of black asphalt lining the roadway.
The street was one of the Northwest’s first experiments in “natural drainage systems.” A decade
ago, workers jackhammered up the block and rebuilt it to catch and clean stormwater the way it happens
naturally. In a forest, rainwater falls on branches and leaves and slowly evaporates, or it soaks into the ground and
gets sucked up by plants. The project —called SEA Street—has
been wildly successful, nearly eliminating stormwater runoff, even during heavy rains.

23 Natural drainage systems are slowly cropping up around the Northwest. It’s all part of a movement called “low-impact development” or LID. The logic of LID is to try to replicate nature’s way of managing rainfall. It means taking surfaces that normally repel water—roofs and driveways, for example—and making them spongy. That can mean green roofs covered in water-trapping soil and plants, like the ones capping a building complex at the Evergreen State College in Olympia.24 It can mean hooking downspouts to rain barrels or cisterns to store the water that does run off, or having downspouts flow into “rain gardens” where ponds with deep layers of gravel and soil help water soak into the earth. It can mean building driveways from a lattice of pavers that leave some of the soil exposed, like the parking lot built at the Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham, or the residential alleyway built of porous concrete in the same

25 LID is both less expensive and more effective at cleaning stormwater than the
traditional gutter-and-storm-drain systems. A study by the US Environmental Protection Agency compared the cost of stormwater projects that were built using LID techniques to what they would have cost using conventional strategies. In 11 of 12 cases examined across North America, the LID option was cheaper by anywhere from
15 to 80 percent.26 Low-impact development is gaining popularity, but still faces hurdles. Developers often are more comfortable sticking with the conventional systems that they know.
And in many cases, city building regulations even require traditional infrastructure,
whether mandating wider roads to accommodate parking plus emergency vehicles, or
prescribing stormwater pipes when a swale would work better and cost less.

The SEA Street low-impact development project has
been wildly successful, nearly eliminating stormwater runoff, even during heavy rains.{Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 5

Death by a thousand rainstorms
Puget Sound faces a death not so much by a thousand cuts as by a thousand rainstorms, each flushing foul stormwater into Washington’s cherished inland sea. Saving the Sound as a place to fish, beach comb, dig clams, and enjoy watching
seabirds and orcas will require a long-term commitment and a dramatic shift in how we build our streets and homes and landscape our yards. Given the infinite ways in which stormwater picks up pollutants and flows into rivers and the sea, its solution will likely take multiple initiatives that tackle the problem from different angles. Washington’s leaders have an opportunity to launch two of these initiatives, taking important steps toward making low-impact development more widespread. First, state legislative leaders can look for ways to provide funding for stormwater
management—especially for cost-effective low-impact development—that can stanch the flow of runoff. Second, the Department of Ecology is crafting a set of rules to specify where and how cities and counties should require the use of LID.27 If Ecology establishes robust standards that hasten widespread adoption of smart LID strategies,
Puget Sound and the waterways that feed it could reap big benefits for a modest price. The stormwater problem is only likely to worsen if the region’s population swells as projected to more than 5 million residents by 2020, roughly a 13 percent increase from today.

28 “Time is not on our side,” said Tom Holz, a stormwater and LID expert who’s
helping advise Ecology. “We may lose the battle just simply through dallying.”

About the Authors
Lisa Stiffler is a researcher and editor at Sightline Institute. Previously, she worked as
an environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer where her work included
award-winning investigations into the health of Puget Sound. Eric de Place is senior
researcher at Sightline Institute.
Sightline Institute is a not-for-profit research and communication center—a think
tank—based in Seattle. Founded in 1993 by Alan Durning, Sightline’s mission
is to bring about sustainability, a healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in place. Our
focus is Cascadia, or the Pacific Northwest.
1. Northwest Fisheries Science Center, “Coho Pre-Spawn Mortality in Urban Streams,” http://
2. Sarah G. McCarthy, John P. Incardona, and Nathaniel L. Scholz, “Coastal Storms,
Toxic Runoff, and the Sustainable Conservation of Fish and Fisheries,” American Fisheries Society
Symposium, 64:7–27, 2008,; The data on Coho prespawn
mortality were collected from 2002 until 2006.
3. Washington Department of Ecology, “Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound -- Phase
Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 6
2: Improved Estimates of Loadings from Surface Runoff and Roadways,” November 2008, http://; and Washington Department of Ecology, “Reports confirm
surface runoff as leading source of toxics in Puget Sound,” January 2010,
4. Lisa Stiffler and Robert McClure, “Toxic stormwater is one of the Sound’s biggest
threats,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 11, 2006,
5. Association of Washington Cities, “Invest in Clean Water Today,” fact sheet.
6. A rainfall of one inch falling on a house with a 1,200 square foot roof creates 748 gallons
of water. Seattle’s average rainfall is 38.2 inches (Eric A. Rosenberg, Patrick W. Keys, Derek B. Booth,
David Hartley, Jeff Burkey, Anne C. Steinemann, and Dennis P. Lettenmaier, “Precipitation extremes
and the impacts of climate change on stormwater infrastructure in Washington State,” March 2009,;
and Western Regional Climate Center, “Climate of Washington,” section on Puget Sound lowlands,
7. Calculated from US Census Bureau, American FactFinder, “S2504: Physical Housing
Characteristics for Occupied Housing Units,”
8. Seattle Public Utilities, “At Your Service” newsletter, January-February 2007, http://www.
9. City of Port Angeles, “Wastewater Treatment Plant Monitoring Report,” November 2009,
10. Seattle Public Utilities, “Utilities’ Scientists Re-map Seattle’s Flood-prone Areas,” news
release, October 5, 2009,
11. Brad Wong, “Making her loss a lesson for living,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 10,
12. King County Superior Court, Complaint for Damages, filed December 14, 2009, http://
13. Sarah G. McCarthy, John P. Incardona, and Nathaniel L. Scholz, “Coastal Storms, Toxic Runoff, and the Sustainable Conservation of Fish and Fisheries,” American Fisheries Society Symposium, 64:7–27, 2008,
14. Washington Department of Ecology, “Control of Toxic Chemicals in Puget Sound -- Phase 2: Improved Estimates of Loadings from Dischargers of Municipal and Industrial Wastewater,” September 2008,; and Washington Department of Ecology, “Addendum 2: Phase 1 and Phase 2 Toxics Loadings Reports, Technical Memorandum,” January 8, 2010,
15. Washington Department of Ecology, “Addendum 2: Phase 1 and Phase 2 Toxics Loadings Reports, Technical Memorandum,” January 8, 2010, pubs/0810084addendum2.pdf. Data were taken from Table B1, converted into millions of pounds, and results taken from the 75 percent probability of exceedance.
16. Brendan E. Hickie, Peter S. Ross, Robie W. Macdonald, and John K. B. Ford, “Killer
Whales (Orcinus orca) Face Protracted Health Risks Associated with Lifetime Exposure to PCBs,”
Environmental Science and Technology, August 22, 2007, pp. 6613–6619,
Sightline Report • Curbing Stormwater Pollution • January 2010 7
Photo Credits Storm drain into Cherry Creek © tux404,
Canal Water © robpatrick,
17. Lisa Stiffler, “Orcas so full of pollutants, it’s enough to sicken them,” Seattle Post-
Intelligencer, October 10, 2007,
18. Bill Reilly, stormwater and surface water utility manager for the city of Bellingham,
personal communication, January 7, 2010; and City of Bellingham, “Stormwater Solutions for
Protecting Lake Whatcom,” November 2006,
19. Whatcom County Public Works, Stormwater Division, “Lake Whatcom Comprehensive Stormwater Plan: Executive Summary,” March 2008, pdf/water/stormwaterplan/executivesummary.pdf.
20. Washington Department of Health, “Atlas of Fecal Coliform Pollution in Commercial Shellfish Areas of Puget Sound: Year 2007,” April 2009, fecalreport.pdf.
21. Derek B. Booth, Bernadette Visitacion, and Anne C. Steinemann, “Damages and Costs of Stormwater Runoff in the Puget Sound Region,” August 30, 2006,
PSATstormwaterFoundation_FINAL_08-30-06.pdf. Calculations on the decline of revenue from
commercial shellfish harvest originally found in the study by Booth et al. were updated by Sightline
using data from the Washington Department of Revenue,
22. Bob Woolrich and Tim Determan, Washington Department of Health’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, personal communication, November 13, 2009.
23. Richard R. Horner, Heungkook Lim, and Stephen J. Burges, “Hydrologic Monitoring of the Seattle Ultra-Urban Stormwater Management Projects,” November 2002,
24., Evergreen State College Seminar II Building,
25. Puget Sound Action Team, “Natural Approaches to Stormwater Management: Low Impact Development in Puget Sound,” March 2003. pdf/lid_natural_approaches.pdf.
26. US Environmental Protection Agency, “Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact
Development (LID) Strategies and Practices,” December 2007,
27. Washington Department of Ecology, Developing Low Impact Development (LID)
28. Calculated from Puget Sound Partnership, “Vetted Statements from Recent Findings,” August, 13, 2009, Starts%20Here%20VettedFacts-ProblematicStatements_2009-08-13.pdf.

photo credit - Janet Way


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  2. We are still on the line together. I REALLY APPRECIATE your help!

  3. What kind of inlet filters do they use? If any...