In a landmark decision, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board today issued a ruling requiring that cities and counties around Puget Sound take more aggressive steps to reduce stormwater runoff. The board struck down provisions in two regionwide permits as inadequate, and concluded that greater use of “low impact development” techniques is required to meet the governing legal standards. The permits are issued by the state Department of Ecology, which must now reissue them.
“This is a great day for Puget Sound,” said Kathy Fletcher, Executive Director of People for Puget Sound. “This ruling gets us one big step closer to the Puget Sound Partnership’s goal of recovering Puget Sound by 2020.”
Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and People for Puget Sound appealed two permits last year regulating municipal stormwater discharges from scores of cities and counties around Puget Sound. The groups believed that the requirements of the permits were inadequate to protect Puget Sound and its declining populations of salmon, orcas and other marine species.
Stormwater — runoff from roads and rooftops that is discharged to the rivers, streams and lakes that feed Puget Sound — has been cited as the number one threat to the health of Puget Sound. Stormwater contains toxic metals, oil and grease, pesticides and herbicides, and bacteria and nutrients. Recent research of stormwater runoff from industrial areas and highways indicate that when it rains, toxic metals, particularly copper and zinc, are being discharged in amounts that seriously degrade water quality and kill marine life. Stormwater volumes also erode stream banks, deposit sediment, and widen channels enough to damage fish and wildlife habitat. Some studies show urban creeks to be so degraded that adult salmon are killed within minutes of entering the stream.
The board concluded that the permit’s focus on traditional engineered stormwater management facilities like detention ponds was inadequate to protect Puget Sound and meet the law’s requirements. The decision reads, “The Board concludes that the Phase I Permit fails to require that the municipalities control stormwater discharges to the maximum extent practicable and does not require application of all known, available and reasonable methods to prevent and control pollution, because it fails to require more extensive use of low impact development techniques.”
“The question we asked was, ‘Do we want salmon swimming through the Ballard Locks in years to come, or not?'” said Sue Joerger of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “To our relief, the Pollution Controls Hearing Board said, yes, and here is what we will do.”
The board also struck down provisions of the permit governing cleanup plans for existing developed areas, finding that they lacked a prioritization scheme that would focus attention on the most serious problems. Additionally, the board modified the permit’s adaptive management process for water quality violations to make it more rigorous and accountable.
“With the future of the Sound at stake, we need to do everything we can to stop undermining water quality and begin restoring degraded areas,” said Jan Hasselman the lead attorney for Earthjustice, which represented the environmental appellants. “There are inexpensive and proven ways to stop pollution now, through techniques like low impact development, instead of relying on the old ways of installing expensive treatment systems at the end of the pipe. We are pleased that the board agreed that with us that greater use of these techniques should become the rule, not the exception.”
Read the decision (PDF)