Grinning like a proud father, John Stark upends the 5-gallon bucket he’s been carrying and splashes water onto the parking lot, inadvertently giving his cowboy boots a good soaking.
The pavement at the Washington State University Research & Extension Center looks about like any other slab of concrete, but instead of running for the nearest drain, the water disappears almost instantly, as if Stark had poured it onto a bed of dry gravel.
In a sense, he has.
The concrete is designed so water flows through it and into the ground beneath. It’s part of a $1 million stormwater research effort in Puyallup that Stark believes will help revolutionize urban development and, in the process, save Puget Sound from death by poisoning.
Techniques that scientists at the center are studying are collectively known as “low-impact development,” or LID for short.
The LID concept turns the traditional practice of stormwater management on its head. For more than a century, engineers have been doing their best to whisk rainwater off the land as efficiently as possible, channeling it along curbs, into underground pipes and into the nearest river or stream.
The problem is, the runoff carries a potent mix of toxic chemicals.
Each year, researchers say, an estimated 14 million pounds of oil and grease, heavy metals, bacteria, flame retardants, pesticides and fertilizers wash into Puget Sound from roads, parking lots and suburban lawns.
The contaminants have deadly effects on marine life, from the smallest organisms to clams and oysters and salmon.
Puget Sound’s orcas, at the top of the food chain, are so contaminated that their beached carcasses must be disposed of as toxic waste.
Contrary to long-standing practice, low-impact development designers try to maintain natural drainage flow paths. They try to keep rainwater close to where it falls, where it can be filtered by the soil and taken up by plants.
Slowing the flow doesn’t work magic on all chemicals, but scientists say healthy soil and plants are remarkably good filters.
Stark, the director of the WSU research center, is a devout LID disciple.
“With stormwater, we really have been going in the wrong direction,” he said. “Now we’re going to be able to turn this all around.”
The promise of low-impact development has captivated not only urban designers but also soil scientists, civil engineers and horticulturists.
In designing systems that use water most efficiently, they envision a dramatically changed urban landscape, one in which hard concrete edges are softened by nature, even in the most densely populated areas.
Tacoma’s new Center for Urban Waters building on the Thea Foss Waterway was intended as a model of low-impact development and incorporates several features, including a green roof, a rainwater-capture system and rain gardens.
Pierce County participated in an early demonstration project of low-impact development in 2005 with a nine-acre residential subdivision called The Meadow on the Hylebos, adjacent to Fife.
LID techniques used in that project, including extensive rain gardens and pervious concrete, ended up saving money for the developer. The development is one of the most extensively monitored LID sites in the country.
The vision for low-impact development goes far beyond green roofs, permeable pavement and rain gardens, said Curtis Hinman, a research scientist at the WSU center and one of the nation’s top LID experts.
“There’s a whole aesthetic, livability thing associated with it,” Hinman said. “When this is done right, there’s a whole set of attributes incorporated into it – open space for trails and walking, more interaction between neighbors, a greater sense of community.
“It can just be exceptional. It’s a whole different world.”
In the next few months, low-impact development is going to burst out of the realm of imagination and into building codes across the state.
The Department of Ecology is writing rules that will require cities and counties to make low-impact development techniques mandatory “wherever feasible” in new construction and retrofits.
The agency is proceeding under two mandates. One is from the State Pollution Control Hearings Board, which, after a lawsuit by environmental advocates, is forcing the Ecology Department to push LID techniques harder.
The other is a rising chorus from environmental scientists, who continue to amass evidence that surface water runoff is the primary reason Puget Sound is so sick.
“You’ve probably seen the little rivulets with a rainbow oil sheen on them, running off parking lots when it rains,” Hinman said.
Multiply that by all the pavement surrounding Puget Sound, he said, and it’s the equivalent of an 11-million-gallon Exxon Valdez oil spill into the Sound every 18 months.
“It’s kind of hard to envision, but the problem is not a pipe, spewing crap,” Hinman said. “It’s small amounts of pollutants from thousands of individual sources.”
In preparation for writing the new rules, the Ecology Department is taking advice from panels of scientists, developers, environmental planners and building regulators. The meetings will continue through next month.
According to Bill Moore, head of the department’s stormwater programs, the agency will write a draft of the rules by the end of this year. The rules will go out for public review early in 2011 and become final in 2012.
The new rules will be an effort to provide definition and clarity so everyone will know what is expected of them, Moore said, a task difficult both technically and politically.
“I can’t tell you at this point exactly where we’re going to wind up,” he said. “Some folks are expecting it to be a sea change in the way we do business. Others will be very upset if it is.”
Cathy Beam, the principal environmental planner for the City of Redmond, is one of the experts advising the Ecology Department on the new rules.
Beam is sold on low-impact development, but her experience in local government makes her aware of how difficult the change is likely to be. Some city and county officials have been dragging their feet, worried about the time and money the new rules will require.
“This is a real paradigm shift,” she said. “It’s an entirely different way of looking at stormwater management.”
High on the list of probable barriers, she said, are the ingrained attitudes of just about everybody in the development world, from designers and engineers to builders and government inspectors.
“Like anything new, it’s always kind of getting over that education barrier.” Beam said. “Sometimes the attitude is, ‘This is how we’ve treated stormwater all along. Why change it?’”
But, Beam said, she has no doubt the change is necessary.
“If current techniques were doing what they were supposed to be doing, we wouldn’t have Puget Sound in the dire shape it’s in,” she said. “Clearly the present system is not working. Something has to be done.”
Art Castle, the executive director of the Kitsap Home Builders Association, represents builders and developers on one of the advisory panels.
He considers himself an LID advocate, but he doesn’t want the state to come down hard with rules about where the techniques should be required. He thinks voluntary compliance is the best way to go.
“Market-based environmental solutions work,” Castle said, “and LID is the best example of that I’ve seen. That’s because economics are generally on its side.”
Developers often find that by using LID techniques, they can do away with expensive pipes, underground vaults and detention ponds, Castle said, freeing up more space for building.
“People will do it because they want to,” he said.
The problem, Castle thinks, will come if the Ecology Department is too heavy-handed with its rules, setting up situations where low-impact development will be forced into places where it doesn’t work – for example, where water tables are too high, soil is too dense or slopes too steep.
“It’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to mandate because it will end up being required on sites where it shouldn’t be done,” he said.
Cost also is high on the list of city and county worries about making the change. Jurisdictions that are not prepared will face the new rules with a shortage of trained staff members and codes that need rewriting.
Thanks mainly to the federal designation of Commencement Bay as a Superfund site, the City of Tacoma is ahead of most jurisdictions in stormwater innovation.
The EPA required the city to make changes to keep from recontaminating the bay and, as a consequence, it has spent millions of dollars monitoring, mapping and retrofitting. Tacoma regulations already encourage low-impact development, though not as enthusiastically as some would like.
“Low-impact development is one tool in a toolbox,” said Lorna Mauren, who manages surface water programs for Tacoma. “If I were the surface water manager in some rural area, I would be all over low-impact development. In urban areas, it’s much more difficult.
“The issue in Tacoma is, we’re already fully developed,” Mauren said, “so redevelopment back to low-impact development would be a challenge. We don’t want to put it (surface water) in the ground where it’s going to come out on a neighbor’s property or contribute to landslides.”
Mauren said the new rules could come with high costs.
“It really depends on what ‘low impact’ turns out to mean,” she said. “I don’t know what ‘feasible’ means to them, and I don’t know what ‘low impact’ means.”
Many local governments in the Puget Sound area have regulations that discourage or even prohibit LID techniques. For example, local codes typically require curbs and gutters along residential streets or prohibit using permeable pavement.
The Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency tasked with restoring the health of Puget Sound, has been working with local governments in promoting low-impact development at the local government level, helping review building codes and making them more LID-friendly and training employees.
GETTING THE PUBLIC TO BUY IT
Perhaps the biggest barrier to incorporating low-impact development is getting the public to realize the cumulative impact of small mistakes, said Sandy Howard, communications manager of Water Quality & Environmental Assessment programs at the Ecology Department.
People’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear the word “stormwater,” she said.
Howard thinks semantics might be part of the solution.
“The word ‘stormwater’ equates to regulation, and permits,” she said. “Instead, we’ve started using term ‘polluted runoff.’”
The Puget Sound Partnership also is working to win over the public.
It recently stepped up its public relations effort, in part with a “Puget Sound Starts Here” campaign, designed to impress on people the importance of such seemingly innocuous activities as washing vehicles at home and not picking up after their pets.
Despite all the effort, many people still do not realize the Sound is polluted or that stormwater is a problem, said Dan Wrye, water quality manager at Pierce County’s Public Works and Utilities Department.
“They think it’s treated,” he said. “They don’t know it runs straight into Puget Sound.”
In 2009, Wrye’s agency hired the Elway Research polling firm to survey Pierce County residents on their attitudes about stormwater runoff. The survey found that most people (57 percent) thought the Sound’s health was “fairly good” or “excellent.”
Half the respondents were under the mistaken impression that stormwater system runoff water is treated before it’s discharged to waterways.
More encouraging, Wrye said, was that 83 percent of the people in said they would be willing to change their behavior to help prevent water pollution. Sixty percent even said they would at least “somewhat support” additional fees to pay for surface water management projects.
That’s important, Wrye said, because, like it or not, sustainable funding is going to have to be found to pay for installing, maintaining and inspecting new systems.
The money needs to be spent, Wrye said. “Controlling stormwater is the key to Puget Sound’s survival.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693