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As Pressure Increases, So Do Ways to Curb Polluted Runoff

"It's major maintenance the county is taking on, just like trash collection," said Wade Hugh, Prince William's chief of watershed management.

Fairfax County is nearly doubling its spending on storm-water cleanup, allocating $18 million in next year's budget. Bouchard estimates that the county will need to spend $800 million in the next 20 years.

As antipollution efforts increase, the field of municipal engineering has sprung up -- as have such terms as bioswales, pervious surfaces, soakage trenches, green roofs, French drains, porous pavers and bioretention facilities. Those techniques create mini-treatment plants that store surging runoff as they filter pollutants, then let the water soak into the ground.

In the District, several hundred modern buildings -- including MCI Center, the Washington Convention Center and the Mandarin Hotel -- have installed labyrinths deep beneath the street: vaults of sand the sizes of small apartments to filter rainwater.

Even tiny cities such as Falls Church (population 10,400) face new costs.

The standard technique for handling storm-water runoff is the drainage pond, a man-made lake built in subdivisions and office parks that releases water slowly into drainpipes and streams. But the ponds are becoming unpopular. They do not filter pollutants and, if not properly maintained, can collect sediment. Homeowner groups complain that the ponds are ugly, are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and are unsafe for children.

But of greater concern to local officials and environmentalists are such older neighborhoods as Alexandria, Silver Spring and areas of the District that were built with no storm-water controls.

"To rein in that situation, you have to go back and try to retrofit buildings," said Doug Siglin, director of the Anacostia River Initiative, an environmental group. He said the District has a "huge stake" in cleaning up storm water flowing into the Anacostia since so much economic development, including a new baseball stadium, is planned for the riverfront.

The District bears the extra burden of having its storm-water runoff and sanitary sewers in the same pipes. After a heavy rain, sewage flows into streams and rivers. This spring, a judge ordered the city to separate its combined system over 20 years -- an expense estimated at $1.9 billion, on top of storm-water costs.

Environmental groups are pushing the D.C. Council to increase a small storm-water utility fee, which the city has levied since 2000, to fund the water system costs. D.C. households pay $7 a year on average, generating $3 million a year, but Siglin said that is not nearly enough.

Montgomery County tacked its first storm-water fee onto property tax bills two years ago. Arlington County and Alexandria officials said they are considering similar policies, and an advisory group in Fairfax has recommended adding a fee to water or tax bills, starting in 2007, that would be safe from budget cuts.

New bureaucracies are forming to measure the area of paved or impervious surfaces on commercial properties so governments can tax them accordingly. And as counties weigh fees for homeowners, they debate the fairness issue: Should everyone pay the same rate, or be taxed based how much of their property is soil and how much is asphalt?


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