By Chris Weiss, Executive Director, DC Environmental Network
On February 2nd, the DC Environmental Network held a special Clean Water Campaign event to mark the recent arrival of the District’s new stormwater permit and to start getting a clearer picture as to how District agencies are going to implement its various stormwater management programs. The following is an attempt to share, and get a feel for the lack of historical precedent there is so far, for successful implementation of the permit. However, with a fairly new environmental agency (DDOE), and with the good work of environmental groups and positive intentions of agency staff, we just may be able to establish some constructive momentum and get something done for our rivers and creeks. This summary also includes the three video presentations from District Department of the Environment (DDOE) representatives Christophe Tulou (Director, DDOE), Hamid Karimi, PhD.(Deputy Director, DDOE) and Jeff Seltzer (Stormwater Administrator, DDOE).
Maybe I should give some context to our recent discussion on implementation of DC’s new stormwater permit.
The road to District of Columbia compliance with the Clean Water Act has been a complex, fascinating, but mostly a frustrating tale. The District’s history shows decision makers time and again, quick to go to the edges of our rivers and creeks and declare their love and commitment to restoration efforts, then rush back to their executive offices to gut clean-up funding, raid bag fee money, lower water quality standards (twice in the last decade), sit on legislation to create environmental requirements for new development along our most damaged river (the Anacostia) and blame our pollution problems on folks who are upstream. (Does the Potomac River end in Washington, DC?)
Well, just maybe, things have changed…a little.
Since the DC Environmental Network successfully advocated for the creation of a new District Department of the Environment (DDOE) in the 90’s, the District has marched, sometimes crawled, towards the future slowly building an agency whose mission is to go to work each day and try and figure out ways to follow environmental laws and protect our damaged urban environment.
It must be noted that the environmental community did not just sit on the sidelines the last decade and watch this happen. The environmental advocacy community has had to push, sometimes hard, with advocacy efforts to create DDOE; campaigns to protect water quality standards and promote stormwater management; litigation to defend the Clean Water Act and yearly efforts to bolster the budget of an agency that has more responsibility for environmental health and public welfare then District residents are willing to concede. It hasn’t been easy.
The good news might just be, with very little precedent, we may be seeing signs that having an environmental agency is helping us move forward. Not just on river restoration issues but on numerous fronts important to our planets survival. Which leads me to the District’s stormwater permit…the topic of our recent DC Environmental Network discussion.
Case Study – Our New Stormwater (MS4) Permit:
The idea of creating a strong stormwater permit has consumed the time and energy of many clean river advocates the last ten years. Many of us have spent hundreds, possibly countless more hours advocating on behalf of area rivers and trying to unravel the puzzle of what it might take to motivate government to do its job. We have focused on the stormwater permit because we have hoped that requirements to create working stormwater controls, to keep toxic chemicals and other pollutants out of our rivers, with deadlines and specificity, might help us make progress.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued it’s newest stormwater permit three months ago, the environmental community had reason to believe progress had been made. Now we may not like everything that is in our newest stormwater permit, but no one can say it was not an improvement on what we have seen in the past. The permit actually speaks to the creation of a denser tree canopy, green roofs and healthy communities, aspirations that only met with laughter and cold stares less than a decade ago. Additionally, every once in awhile, I (and others) get this feeling that our new agency, that we worked so hard to create and grow, is actually helping us move forward and there is a little light at the end of the tunnel.
Who knows, we may develop real and measurable precedent in the next few years that shows that we can implement the spirit and intent of laws designed to help cleanup our rivers and creeks.
What about the discussion?:
Well, even if there is some forward momentum there is still much work to do. We have a responsibility as advocates to continue to represent the interests of our rivers and part of that responsibility is to continue to push decision makers and engage representatives of the executive and legislative branch. Our recent luncheon was designed to do just that, help establish precedent and keep us all moving forward.
Our panelists reflected the strength and structure of our new agency with three knowledgeable representatives who all have developed extensive expertise on river restoration issues and understand how to hold their own as an agency…something the District has only seen in recent years.
– Christophe Tulou, Director, District Department of the Environment:
Christophe set the stage with a positive assessment of the District’s status as a green city and updated the Network on the current Sustainable DC initiative. He suggested stormwater management could be an important benchmark for sustainability. He also challenged us to do our part to be partners in achieving sustainability.
“I think we are going to find it quite quaint the requirements in this very aggressive MS4 (stormwater) permit that we have five years from now.” – Christophe Tulou, Director, District Department of the Environment
– Hamid Karimi, PhD., Deputy Director, Natural Resources Administration, District Department of the Environment:
Hamid gave participants a little comparison, from DDOE’s perspective, about how the current permit and process compared to past efforts and challenged the environmental community to find the expertise to do it better than might be currently planned.
“A lot of innovative approach (in the new stormwater permit) in doing things different from just about all the other permits EPA has written in the past.” – Hamid Karimi, Deputy Director, Natural Resources Administration, District Department of the Environment
– Jeff Seltzer, Stormwater Administrator, District Department of the Environment
Jeff, who is responsible for working out the details of implementing the stormwater permit discussed some of the specifics of what is actually in the permit and what it might mean to water quality standards.
“With revised regulations (the District) we will be harnessing development…redeveloping sites that have already been built on…taking existing impervious surfaces in most cases and re-developing them to a higher standard. This without a doubt will be the highest driver ever for improving water quality in the District.” – Jeff Seltzer, Stormwater Administrator, District Department of the Environment
These presentations were followed by an open discussion with about 45 participants.