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.

"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?

Prince George's became a pioneer by levying the region's first storm-water fee in the early 1950s to address chronic flooding. Today, some experts call it a national model for promoting low-impact systems.

Builders in Stafford must apply for a waiver if they do not want to put in rain gardens or other water filters. The District requires developers renovating old properties to install storm-water systems on site if the paved surface around the new building exceeds 5,000 square feet.

Anne Arundel makes the same demands of builders and owners of single-family homes. And the county plans to invest millions of dollars in experimental "green roofs" on six county buildings, including a police station and a library. Green roofs are covered with soil, grass and plants.

Arlington went a step further 18 months ago, rebuilding Langston Brown, a school and community center complex off Lee Highway, with three-story high cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof, then become giant watering cans for the lawn. The building has a rain garden next to the playground. And the parking lot was dug to a depth of 12 feet, filled with sand, gravel and dirt and topped with asphalt that looks like a mosaic of tiles, which are separated just enough to let rainwater seep through.

But there are downsides to these marvels of municipal engineering. The caverns of sand under dozens of office buildings in Washington have been monitored poorly, environmental advocates have said, reducing their effectiveness as filters. In Fairfax, the county recently built rain gardens at the county courthouse and in a Centreville park, only to create soggy wetlands that must be torn up and replaced because the original soil mix wasn't porous enough.

And employing the anti-pollution techniques can be pricey.

"On a per-lot basis, all of these regulations are getting very expensive," said Bill Zink, an engineer and president of the Fairfax chapter of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.

Homeowners are signing on for much more than lawn mowing and azalea pruning. Prince William officials said they worry that the new residents of Hopewell's Landing will not keep up their rain gardens -- and they wonder how, if at all, to penalize them if they don't. They also acknowledge that not everyone will enjoy the sight of a bog next to the backyard barbecue after a rain.

"When water comes in, it does stand for a certain time period," said Hugh, the storm water chief. "People will have to get over the perception that they have a drainage problem."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company