John Haldeman, James City County Citizens' Coalition
Support amendments to the Virginia stormwater management program permit regulations
August 17, 2009
State of Virginia
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Soil and Water Conservation Programs
203 Governor Street, Suite 206
Richmond, VA 23219-2094
Department of Conservation and Recreation
Land Conservation Program
203 Governor Street, Suite 302
Richmond, VA 23219-2094
Re: Proposed Amendments to the Virginia Stormwater Management Program Permit Regulations
The James City County Citizens’ Coalition – the J4C – applauds and strongly endorses the state’s “new emphasis on treating stormwater as a resource and not merely a problem to be moved downstream as quickly as possible (where, of course, it becomes somebody else’s problem).” The DCR’s long overdue attempt to strengthen statewide stormwater management regulations must be adopted and implemented, as it is quite clear to our group and to anyone who uses the state’s waterways that the present system has failed in its goal of “reducing pollutant loads to water bodies and maintaining, as much as is possible, the natural hydrology of a watershed.”The degradation of Virginia’s rivers and streams and of the Chesapeake Bay into which they flow continues unabated thirty-two years after Congress enacted the Clean Water Act and 21 years after Virginia enacted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports that 25% of nutrient and sediment pollution comes to the Chesapeake Bay from developed lands, and that 1,570 stream miles are polluted because of stormwater. Moreover, the situation is growing worse:
Although James City County lies at the tail end of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, it is a crucial component in the battle to save the state’s waterways. There are eleven watersheds in the county – only two with management plans – that drain into the Chickahominy, James and York Rivers, so pollution and erosion from runoff is not localized, but contributes to the destruction of the state’s rivers and bays. “Since almost all soils in the county are highly erodible, in 1990 staff recommended and the board of supervisors approved placing the entire county in a Chesapeake Bay Preservation area. Much of the county topography consists of water courses bordered by steep slopes. This fragile environment is important to the quality of life in the county. Almost all water courses in the county have been visibly damaged by urbanization.” Placing the county under this umbrella did little good, as impervious surface expanded relentlessly.
Within the Powhatan Creek watershed – one of the two that has a management plan – all but one of the 10 subwatersheds are currently “impacted,” and two are projected to be “nonsupporting” at buildout, according to an assessment by the county environmental staff. Impervious cover was cited as the cause. Yarmouth Creek is better, but headed for trouble; only one of the six subwatersheds is currently impacted, but four are projected to be impacted at buildout.” The Powhatan Creek Floodplain Study of July 2008 promises more trouble in the future:
·“Runoff rates associated with a 100-year or a 500-year return period are estimated to have doubled (approximately), since the original study was performed. Based on current zoning and comprehensive plan conditions it is expected that the impervious cover in the Powhatan Creek watershed may increase to a maximum of approximately 18.8% under full build-out conditions. It is expected that this further increase in impervious cover will correspondingly increase peak runoff rates by approximately 5%.”
·“The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) recently found that 24-hour 100-and 500 year precipitation amounts used for modeling are significantly higher than the previously published values.”
Despite these trends, local government has lacked the resources, and possibly the will, to take the steps necessary to prevent the expansion of impervious surface that causes much of the water borne pollution and erosion:
The board of supervisors imposed a stormwater utility fee in 2007 to raise funds to raise funds for stream restoration, but then rescinded the fee in 2008. Since then, inadequate and declining general fund expenditures for stream restoration have left the county, in the words of a county-chartered efficiency study, with “a twenty-year backlog of drainage infrastructure issues … and introduced uncertainty with respect to funding and staffing.” The experts also found that the Stormwater Division lacks adequate technology and has only two of the four inspectors deemed necessary. Several neighborhoods in the county have been plagued with periodic flooding caused in part by upstream impervious cover. “[County] citizens report an increasing number of problems with pipes, inlets, ponds, and other stormwater facilities installed within the community.”
On December 11, 2007, county supervisors, after more than one year of study and with the recommendation of county staff, adopted buffers on intermittent streams, non-RPA wetlands and tidal and nontidal mainstems of the two largest watersheds. One month later, succumbing to pressure from builders and rural land owners, the board rescinded the buffers. (The RMA buffers are still intact for legislative case applications).
A Rural Lands Study, written over many months by a committee appointed by the board of supervisors, recommended zoning changes that would reduce impervious surface in large areas of the county, but it has been tabled since 2007.
With little hope for action from localities, it now falls to the state to impose these regulations and arrange for a source of funding. By equalizing regulations across the state, the DCR increases predictability in the construction permit process and prevents one jurisdiction from “outbidding” another for a commercial project based on an easier regulatory process. Some will object to the cost of implementation, but the true costs lie not in prevention but in degradation. The new regulations do not increase costs; they simply allocate the costs of ruined watersheds. Ignoring the degradation does not reduce the costs; it simply passes them on to downstream residents, to the public at large, and to future generations. The new regulations may actually reduce costs, because prevention is so much cheaper than restoration, and because assigning the costs of the ruined watersheds directly to those who cause them could provide an incentive for them to behave more responsibly. Another objection is that the costs will make housing less affordable, but housing should not be made affordable at the expense of our environment. Affordable housing, where needed, should be financed directly. The environment should not be treated as a “piggy bank” that can be continuously raided, thereby hiding the true cost of doing business.
Some claim that the new regulations were proposed without scientific or hydrologic basis, but those people obviously have not reviewed the extensive bibliography cited in the new Handbook. It cites extensive research supporting these regulations done through field surveys and samples by federal and state officials, engineers, academicians and independent scholars. Those challenging the research must also face the cold reality that existing regulations have not worked.
James City County (and the entire state, for that matter) sits at a critical juncture. The county has experienced unrestrained population growth, (346% from 1970 to 2007, from 17,853 to 61,739), paralleling the growth in the entire Chesapeake Watershed cited in the Handbook. The Handbook’s comment “due to the increasing demand for public water supplies, groundwater levels are declining and municipal treatment plants are struggling to supply current demands while dealing with declining infrastructures (Chapter 4, P9)” is not news to county residents, who have experienced a recent, dramatic upward spike in water rates. However, unlike the urbanized counties of northern Virginia and elsewhere, James City County is nowhere close to being built out, which creates both a threat and an opportunity. According to a study for the 2008 Comprehensive Plan revision, the county’s land use map will accommodate a further tripling of the population to about 190,000. If we have experienced this stream degradation already, and if the county won’t act to control the growth that causes it (even accommodating a further increase in the last Plan), we cringe at the thought of what the streams and Bay will be like at buildout without these proposed regulations. The proposed regulations, it seems to us, go a long way toward erecting a defense before additional population growth further increases the cost of prevention and mitigation. In addition to providing a badly needed source of funding to restore degraded streams and to help prevent further degradation, they assign the cost of prevention and mitigation to the cause of the degradation.
The J4C recognizes that development is not the only source of water pollution (The USEPA has ranked stormwater runoff as the second most prevalent source of water quality impairment (after agriculture) in the nation’s estuaries), but the proposed changes represent a critical step in restoring a healthy ecosystem. Thank you for your efforts on behalf of the residents of Virginia.
The James City County Citizens’ Coalition (J4Cs), a nonprofit, nonpartisan community liaison and action group, was formed in 2006 to coordinate the activities of existing groups and HOAs working to protect and preserve our environment and quality of life.