Wastewater Stepchild? Changing the Perception of Stormwater

Clean-water professionals have long looked at stormwater as an entirely separate issue. Important signs indicate that is changing.

Once upon a time, sewage and stormwater in cities flowed through the same pipes to treatment plants. The inevitable result was overloading of those plants during heavy storms, leading to severe water pollution. Communities then spent years and billions of dollars creating mostly separate stormwater and wastewater conveyances.

Now, clean-water agencies are looking again at stormwater. No less an authority than the Water Environment Federation has released a report, Rainfall to Results: The Future of Stormwater. There are good reasons for this.

The WEF report notes that stormwater “is the only growing source of water pollution in many watersheds throughout North America.” This is because industries and municipalities alike now operate sophisticated treatment plants — the cleanup of plant effluent is reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Much of the pollution now entering our waters is carried in runoff from farmscapes and city lawns and streets. If we’re serious about taking clean water to the next level, we have to address stormwater. Phosphorus in runoff is a major concern.

Who’s responsible?

That being the case, just who should take care of stormwater? A separate utility? A utility somehow connected with the wastewater side? The latter idea makes a certain amount of sense, given that treatment plants increasingly look toward nutrient trading and adaptive management upstream as alternatives to costly new processes (see In My Words, August 2016 TPO).

The thing about stormwater is that it doesn’t observe municipal boundaries. The waters flowing through or bordering Any City, USA, aren’t affected just by the rain that falls on the cities. Watershed approaches to the problem are essential — that isn’t news.

As the WEF report observes, the common approach to stormwater used to be carrying runoff away as fast as possible. Now the emphasis is shifting toward handling as much runoff as possible right where the rain falls. How exactly to do that is the subject of the report.

Setting a vision

The WEF report tacitly acknowledges that stormwater has traditionally been treated as the poor stepchild of wastewater and drinking water. It hasn’t received nearly the attention or the funding as those other two components of the urban water system.

Suppose that were to change. Suppose that, as the WEF report envisions, stormwater were managed at the watershed scale. Suppose that stormwater governance were rigorous and the programs and agencies responsible fully funded. Suppose that best practices in managing stormwater were aggressively researched, selected and deployed.

Finally, suppose that stormwater systems were overseen by a workforce well qualified to install, inspect, operate, maintain and repair the infrastructure. All that looks like a recipe for progress. But what about looking beyond management and toward reuse? There’s the potential role for professionals on the water and wastewater treatment sides.

Another resource?

Can stormwater become a resource to be used, instead of just something to be managed? That idea was planted in my head by Melissa Meeker, CEO of the new Water Environment and Reuse Foundation (see In My Words, September 2016 TPO).

Imagine a community where water is scarce capturing and reusing not only its wastewater but the rain that falls. There are logistical issues involved, of course. We surely don’t want to go back to the days of combined sewers. There would be challenges in getting the stormwater to a place where it can be routed into treatment.

And of course, treatment itself poses issues. First-flush stormwater is pretty nasty stuff, full of gasoline, oil, tire dust and other pollutants from vehicles, plus traces of herbicides, pesticides, pet waste and who knows what else. On the other hand, today’s treatment technologies can do remarkable things (albeit at a price).

The point is that it behooves society, and people in the water professions, to bring stormwater into the tent as something to be handled with the same caliber of concern and investment as drinking water and wastewater. Stormwater is not something that’s off to the side. Today more than ever, it is front and center in its impacts. It deserves our full attention. We’re past the time when any water professional can look at stormwater as just someone else’s concern.


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