By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
Maryland's new rules limiting sand, dirt and other gunk in Montgomery County waterways have caught an improbable violator in its net : the public school system, comprising 199 schools. The system's acres of blacktops, parking lots and ballfields carry stream-clogging runoff into nearby creeks every time it rains, contributing to downstream pollution.
But finding a way to fix the problem might force officials to make difficult choices in tough economic times. Amid government furloughs and job cuts, the school system will have to find a way to pay for drainage improvements.
The Montgomery County Council took a first step last week, offering preliminary backing for $500,000 to help the school system inventory its aging storm-water management systems, some in schools built before the environmental movement began.
Joe Lavorgna, school facilities chief, said the new rules had caught officials by surprise when they learned last fall that environmentalists had persuaded the state to include the school system as responsible, along with the county government, for improving the waterways. Other school systems across the country have begun to address runoff and pollution from their facilities, but Montgomery is only the second -- Ann Arbor, Mich., was the first, officials said -- whose name has been placed on an official state permit. The permit is the legal hammer that forces the school system to address the problem.
"I think the school system was singled out because of the perception that they are not doing enough," said Brian Clevenger, a state environmental official who worked on the permit.
Storm-water management is important to environmental health for many reasons. Water that flows into streams during storms often causes damage because of the material that is carried along, clogging streams, which then harms important insects and plant life. That can choke a stream of needed oxygen and change the composition of the water, with some streams eventually flowing into sources of drinking water, such as the Potomac River.
"I don't think there is a lot of choice in the matter," Lavorgna said. The new permit does not give the schools much wiggle room even though the budget is tight.
He said the school system has been using greener practices, constructing buildings that are more energy efficient, adding solar panels to four schools and promoting recycling. But rebuilding and renovating schools is a slow process that has left antiquated storm-water systems in use.
Diane Cameron, a leader of Stormwater Partners, an group of environmental organizations that helped negotiate the permit, said the school system can improve many of its drainage systems without spending a lot of money.
At McKenney Hills Center school in Silver Spring one recent day, she pointed to a sloping asphalt parking lot that carries runoff and silt into a nearby creek, with minimal filtering through a drain. A sloping hill next to the parking lot could be transformed into a rain garden of terraced plants to help soak up the rainwater, filter it and slow its flow to the creek about a hundred feet below. Rain gardens are made up of low-maintenance plants that are especially good at absorbing water and have been shown to slow storm-water flow, she said.
"You could fix the hillside as part of the solution," said Cameron, who lobbies for the Audubon Naturalist Society. Green roofs on schools, which include plants that soak up and filter water, also are a possibility, she said.
School officials hope that this year they will begin to create an inventory of the system's storm drainage, including mapping the hundreds of miles of pipes that carry water away from school properties when it rains or snows, where they go and what condition they are in. That will involve using satellite imagery, site visits and evaluation of such details as the slope of a parking lot or the type of greenery a school might be using to try to soak up and filter some of the water before it flows into county streams.
"We are still trying to sort out how much is needed," Lavorgna said. "At some point, somebody has to pay the bill."
An appeal by Earthjustice, however, could slow things. The environmental group has challenged the new rules for Montgomery as weak. The group has asked that the rules continue to be applied, pending the outcome of the challenge.
Next up, environmental officials say, are the county parks, which occupy about 10 percent of Montgomery.
Clevenger said state officials expect in the next year or so to evaluate how public parks in Montgomery and elsewhere are managing their runoff and are considering tougher rules.
It's a bit incongruous to think of a park as a source of pollution, but Cameron said some landscaping practices could be revised. Walking around McKenney Hills Park next to the school, she pointed out paths where leaves had blown off. That, she said, allows little decomposition that would soften the ground. Softer ground can soak up and filter rainwater and slow runoff.
At the park, the soil had become compacted and hardened because no organic material was decomposing, and it appeared to act like asphalt, allowing water to quickly flow over it and carry silt to nearby streams. Allowing leaves on either side of a path would help slow runoff, Cameron said.