EPA to meet with CNU on reforming water rules
CNU’s new Rainwater Initiative seeks examples from members
For years, urbanists have chafed at US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules that require the handling and treating of rainwater on individual development sites, thereby favoring large lots and greenfield locations. First developed during the early 1990s, the rules reflect a sprawl paradigm that went largely unchallenged at the time. As a result of this shortcoming, EPA’s approach to handling storm water narrowly focuses on one environmental problem while perpetuating others — namely the elevated carbon emissions, air pollution, and habitat disruption impacts associated with automobile-oriented sprawl.
Now, the CNU community has an opportunity to do more than complain. And the EPA has a new opportunity to encourage rainwater runoff solutions that are compatible with smart growth and new urbanist principles that are the foundation of environmentally sound development.
When the rules — formally known as the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) — came up for review and revision this year, CNU sent a letter to EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson, laying out both the problems with the current NPDES and requesting a meeting to discuss concrete reforms for the revised system. Initiated by CNU’s new Rainwater Initiative, the letter was signed by a coalition of non-profit and government partners: the Center for Neighborhood
Technology, the Local Government Commission, the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, the City of Madison (WI), and the National Town Builders Association. See it at cnu.org/EPAwaterletter.
In late September, a letter from the EPA acknowledged that CNU and its partners had raised issues that deserved to be considered. In the letter, Connie Bosma, Chief of EPA’s Municipal Branch, confirmed the agency’s interest in meeting with CNU representatives and expressed a particular interest in data connecting development standards and water quality improvements.
“Given reports that revisions to these rules might actually reinforce their anti-urban bias, we deeply appreciate the opportunity for engagement with the EPA,” said CNU President John Norquist. “We will try to demonstrate the value of block-scale and neighborhood-scale rainwater strategies in urban contexts and to urge the water office to revise its rules in ways that are compatible with the EPA’s commitment to promote sustainable communities through its inter-agency partnership [with the US Department of Transportation and US Department of Housing and Urban Development].”
The case for reform
In making their case, the leaders of the CNU Rainwater Initiative — Paul Crabtree, Lisa Nisenson, John Jacob, and Tom Low — will make use of an emerging body of research demonstrating superior rainwater performance in walkable urban contexts across the rural-to-urban Transect. They are also asking CNU members to share such examples or specific cases where current stormwater regulations became roadblocks, making compact, walkable development impossible or infeasible because of added costs. Send examples to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although sprawl was initially viewed as a positive water system alternative to dense development, its dependence on large roads and parking lots has exacerbated runoff concerns. A study conducted for the EPA by the Morris Beacon Design firm found that traditional neighborhood development and its reduction in the size of impervious area per unit led to “far less total runoff, and therefore less total cost for mitigation of runoff rate, runoff volume, and stormwater quality.”
Crabtree and Jacob have an example of their own to share, the innovative Salon Des Refuses planning project in Katy, Texas, that won a CNU Charter Award in 2010. For that project, a planning team led by Crabtree Group and Dreiling Terrones Architecture responded to an RFP for a sprawl development with “a low-impact” stormwater profile by fitting the entire development program (including 1,200 homes and 800,000 square feet of commercial space) in a footprint ¼ the size of the proposed sprawl development. Preserving 480 acres of undeveloped land, this unselected counter-project proposed pervious paving, gardens serving as natural rainways, a constructed marsh, and thoughtful grading as a substitute for expensive underground piping, demonstrating superior stormwater performance than the low-impact sprawl plan.
The Rainwater Initiative hopes to direct the EPA to these findings and to prove New Urbanism’s valuable contribution to protecting the environment.
The current NPDES serves as a blanket set of policies that considers all new building and redevelopment individually, without looking at the context surrounding the building. The program also makes it hard for buildings to share stormwater control systems, favoring solutions that are nearly impossible in the context of denser and more mixed-use development. As CNU states in its letter, the EPA “has been issuing and promoting new source- and volume-control regulations that are site-based, not watershed-based, and these have the unintended consequence of promoting sprawl rather than fixing it.” With a meeting with the EPA coming soon, CNU and its Rainwater Initiative now have a chance to change that longstanding equation. — By Stephen Filmanowicz with Colleen Foran