PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Managing Stormwater: A Leading Cause of Pollution

Believe it or not: Stormwater is a leading cause of water pollution. 
When it rains or snows, the water flows on the ground, runs off solid (impervious) surfaces collecting pollutants (such as oil, pesticides, sediments, bacteria, and other pollutants) that are on those surfaces, and carries them into our waterways. This “runoff” can make our waterways an unhealthy place to live, work, and play. Untreated stormwater runoff entering our streams can result in the contamination of our drinking water supplies; prohibitions on swimming, fishing or boating uses; injury or death to aquatic plants and animals; dangers to public health; and increased flooding.  
In many places, this stormwater runoff is conveyed through distinct sewer pipes that bypass the wastewater treatment plants and discharge the polluted runoff directly into our streams and lakes. This system is known as a “municipal separate storm sewer system” or MS4.
In addition to the damage to water quality from MS4s, local governments spend millions of dollars each year trying to rectify the damage to public and private property caused by uncontrolled stormwater runoff.  This damage includes repairs to roads, culverts, water, sewer line washouts, flooded homes and yards, the removal of deposited sediment and debris on properties and roads, and repairs of damage to bridges.
Luckily, there are laws out there that protect our waters from polluted stormwater runoff. For example, stormwater from “urbanized (define here what that means) areas”, which are densely settled area that have population of at least 50,000 as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau,  is controlled through a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit under the federal Clean Water Act.  Under the NPDES program, the Environmental Protection Agency began issuing Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits almost 30 years ago.  
In order to obtain coverage under an MS4 permit, permittees, including municipalities, must implement a Stormwater Management Plan (“SWMP”).  These SWMPs must include the development and implementation of “six minimum measures” that prevent or reduce stormwater pollution to the maximum extent possible. The six minimum control measures are: 
  1. Public Education and Outreach on Stormwater Impacts
  2. Public Involvement/Participation 
  3. Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE)
  4. Construction Site Stormwater Runoff Control 
  5. Post-Construction Stormwater Management (PCSM) 
  6. Pollution Prevention/Good Housekeeping 
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) administers the MS4program.  PADEP issued its first general permit for MS4s in 2003.  Although each permit is only supposed to be effective for five years, the PADEP’s second MS4 general permit did not become effective until 2013.  Even then, after over 10 years of the program’s implementation, this second MS4 permit was woefully insufficient.  PennFuture took issue with the inadequacy of the PADEP’s MS4 program and filed an appeal of PADEP’s approval of coverage under the MS4 general permit for Upper Gwynedd Township.  (PA Environmental Hearing Board Docket No. 2013-105-L). You can read more about PennFuture’s claims here
After over a year of negotiations, PennFuture and PADEP entered into a settlement which addressed PennFuture’s most important objections, including providing an opportunity for public participation and requiring a demonstration that designated pollution reductions would occur.  Thanks to PennFuture’s diligence, PADEP was required to include these more stringent conditions in its next MS4 general permit proposal.  Many of these conditions were incorporated into the new five-year MS4 general permit, which became final in June 2016 and goes into effect in March 2018. 
Even though the new MS4 general permit does not go into effect until March of 2018, there are things that must be done now.  This summer (2017) municipalities must prepare pollution reduction plans (PRPs) and make these plans available for public review and comment.  The PRPs assist MS4 municipalities to understand their obligations regarding “impaired” waters and must include the following:
  • A detailed map, 
  • An explanation of the current pollutant loads in local waterways, 
  • A description of best management practices (BMPs) to be implemented over the five year term of the permit and demonstration that these BMPs will reduce pollutants by specified amounts, 
  • A description of how the municipality expects to pay for implementation of their plan, and 
  • A description of the operation and maintenance of proposed BMPs.

PennFuture will be reviewing and commenting on some of these MS4 PRPs this summer, but we need engagement from community members to ensure that stormwater doesn’t harm our waters.  

How you can make a difference: If you live in an MS4 municipality  and stormwater is polluting your local waters or causing damage to property, infrastructure, or drinking water near you, reviewing and commenting on these plans in your opportunity to encourage your municipality to properly address these problems.  DEP has provided instructions on preparing a PRP you can access here. You can learn more about how to review and comment on your municipality’s PRP here.

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up