As Pressure Increases, So Do Ways to Curb Polluted Runoff

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005

Hopewell's Landing isn't just another subdivision paving over a forest of red cedars and pine trees at the reaches of suburbia.

Most of the back yards being graded for the luxury homes off Route 29 in Gainesville will have sunken gardens filled with moisture-loving plants and mulch to absorb rain. The streets will be five feet narrower than usual, to reduce paved surfaces. The 155 homes will be flush with the road, resulting in shorter driveways. And instead of the curbs and gutters that usually carry rain to a nearby stream, deep trenches full of shrubs and stones will line the road to slow and filter the water.

The design mimics a time when Hopewell's Landing was 53 wooded acres. Rain naturally soaked into the forest floor, instead of rushing -- as it does in most of today's suburbs -- over parking lots and roofs and streets, into streams that overflow easily. The residue of daily suburban life is swept along -- fertilizer, brake fluid, oil from gas lawnmowers -- until it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Prince William County persuaded developer D.R. Horton to test the new environmental features to help turn back a little-addressed cost of a half-century of suburban sprawl: polluted runoff.

For decades, the federal government has overlooked the dangers of such a dispersed pollution source, instead targeting sewage treatment plants for cleanup. But now, its attention is turning to storm-water control to protect streams and rivers across the country, including that jewel of the Washington region, the Chesapeake Bay.

The Environmental Protection Agency, prodded by lawsuits from environmental groups, is enforcing a 30-year-old provision of the Clean Water Act, ordering state and local governments across the nation to remove pollution from rainwater before it fouls waterways.

"In the old days, we paved everything, and the attitude was, 'Let's put a pipe underground to get rid of the water as fast as we can,' " said Carl Bouchard, director of storm water management for Fairfax County.

Faced with stricter federal enforcement, local governments are scrambling to find affordable ways to meet their obligations. Public works departments are rebuilding streams to stop erosion, replacing leaky pipes and retrofitting storm-water ponds. And planners are encouraging "low-impact" techniques, such as the rain gardens in Hopewell's Landing -- mini-wetlands planted with native vegetation to intercept runoff.

The consequences of doing nothing loom. In the Washington area, pollution limits could become much stricter if they are not met by 2010, the deadline for the multibillion-dollar federal and state effort to restore the bay to its once-pristine condition.

Dozens of tributaries in the bay's 64,000-square-mile watershed are assigned limits on nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that, in high concentrations, can choke waterways with oxygen-depleting algae and endanger fish. The EPA has threatened to impose new pollution limits for the bay, which would add a potentially onerous burden to state and local governments.

Remedies carry exorbitant costs -- especially, for example, in older neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway that were built with no storm-water controls. A recent report by state environmental agencies on the Chesapeake Bay estimated new cleanup costs at $30 billion, much of it to control storm water. That reportedly will mean a total of about $12 billion in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Businesses and homeowners eventually will pay the expense through new or increased fees on their property tax or water bills. Prince William's annual fee of $21.76 for single-family homes, for instance, will cover county inspections to ensure new Gainesville homeowners maintain their boggy gardens.

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