The Stormwater Problem


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Although rain falls over a broad area, when it runs off it eventually becomes a point source. Image by Robert Lawton

Stormwater Becomes Regulated for Quality

As a result of lawsuits in the early 1980s, the EPA began tackling the issue of stormwater quality, and implemented a program called the Nationwide Urban Runoff Program to gather data from stormwater sources throughout the USA.

The final report, published in 1983, concluded that indeed stormwater was a source of significant pollutants into waters of the United States.

The pollutants were different in nature than those found in industrial waste and municipal wastewater, but they still impaired the quality of the receiving waters.

Congress clarified the situation with passage of the Water Quality Act in 1987. This legislation defined the stormwater quality problem, and incorporated it explicitly into the NPDES permit system.

Beginning in 1992, when the EPA promulgated regulations based on the CWA and the Water Quality Act, stormwater runoff was now a regulation activity.

Initial regulations affected larger cities, construction sites (a major source of sediment in stormwater), and a wide range of industrial sites, and later regulations expanded the restrictions to smaller cities. Still later, the EPA began issuing general permits for these industries; a process that is still ongoing.

How Can We Afford to Clean-up Stormwater?

The cost to treat urban runoff as envisioned by the Clean Water Act is a huge burden to cities already feeling the pinch of economic conditions. Image by Jef132

Thousands of cities in the USA are currently faced with the question of stormwater quality. Where pollutants enter a receiving stream from an industrial site, the burden of clean-up can be placed on the industrial owner. But for a storm sewer system, the municipality must deal with it. Dust settles on roofs and streets, oil drips on streets, and pets and other urban wild animals void their wastes on the land. Eventually the rain comes, these pollutants become water-borne, and make their way to creeks, lakes, and rivers. According to the EPA’s regulations, the city itself is responsible for this pollution.

For new construction, cities can put the cost burden on developers, and make them install stormwater treatment systems at the end of storm sewers, or require the developers to clean up the runoff even before it hits the storm sewers. Unfortunately, for existing storm sewers and other stormwater conveyances, the clean-up required under the CWA (as amended) will be at the cost of taxpayers.

With cities around the nation feeling the budget pinch that comes with a slow economy, the problem of stormwater quality isn’t going to be solved soon. Existing regulations might keep water quality from getting worse as a result of stormwater, but clearly cities do not, for the most part, have the funds needed to clean-up stormwater in the way envisioned by Congress and the EPA.


Environmental Protection Agency. Results of the Nationwide Urban Runoff Program. (1983). Accessed September 3, 2012.

United States Government Printing Office. US Code Title 33, Chapter 26. Accessed September 3, 2012.

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