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Southface Sustainable Communities Thought Leader

The Challenges of Urban Stormwater

Melted water flows down through the manhole cover on a sunny spring day

By Southface Institute with Katherine Zitsch and Katherine Atteberry

Leading up to Southface Institute’s December 6 Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, the second in a two-part series on Protecting Our Water Resources in an Urban Environment, Katherine Zitsch and Katherine Atteberry from the Atlanta Regional Commission answer a few questions about how stormwater pushes urban areas to respond with creativity to both structural and social challenges.

What are the challenges posed by stormwater?

  1. Diverse stakeholders are required for measurable improvement

Everyone lives in a watershed. No matter where you stand, action taken on the land will impact the water. Compared to pollution from a single source, nonpoint source pollution comes from scattered origins, making it challenging to manage with simple solutions. Therefore, it is not an overstatement to say that everyone has a role in watershed protection and improvement. Specific categories of stakeholders include state and federal stormwater permit managers, local government stormwater and planning managers, nonprofit organizations, developers, engineers and citizens, to name a few. Sometimes these groups come together on common solutions, and other times they diverge on their preferred stormwater management solutions. The US EPA has used regulation and permitting to push improved management of stormwater quality, but the prescriptive nature of permitting means it can only be one element of the solution for such a dynamic challenge. Stormwater management is further complicated by the interjurisdictional nature of stormwater. It often flows from unincorporated areas into cities and then back again. To properly manage stormwater, these jurisdictions must work together.

Everyone plays a role in watershed protection and improvement, and people can start with small steps like watering gardens with runoff rather than drinking water.

  1. Funding

Georgia has a patchwork of funding sources to manage stormwater infrastructure, from dedicated stormwater utility fees to general funds that also pay for a variety of other governmental services. The 2019 Georgia Infrastructure Report Card, produced by the Georgia Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, states, “A limited stormwater program survey indicated a median of $6 per capita per year is spent on new or renovated stormwater infrastructure, much less than the $85 per capita need projected by the Environmental Protection Agency.” The Water Environment Federation identified six measures for stormwater success in their publication Rainfall to Results: The Future of Stormwater. One measure was to “Close the Funding Gap.” Other measures for stormwater success would be supported by achieving the funding measure, including “Supporting Innovation and Best Practices” and “Managing Assets and Resources.”

  1. Stormwater’s position on the learning curve

Drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities have a long history of study and implementation with clear public-health and water-quality benefits. The relative infancy of stormwater and watershed management programs and the need to address damage caused by historical land use, have put us on an early arc of the learning curve regarding stormwater. So, there is a lot of opportunity for innovation and improvement in the future. William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator, called stormwater runoff “the water quality issue of the day” in a 2010 Wall Street Journal opinion article. This means that we are in an exciting and formative time for stormwater management.

How is stormwater management also a social issue?

Stormwater management is a social issue because everyone lives in a watershed. Stormwater quantity management is important to protect life and property from the devastating impacts of flood loss. Stormwater quality management is important, because it impacts the use of Georgia’s waterways for drinking, fishing and recreation. The 2018 Green Infrastructure and Health Guide prepared by the Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative states that, “Both natural and built green infrastructure can provide clean air, clean water and natural places to play while serving as health-improving green space… elements of green infrastructure can potentially move the needle on disease prevention, health promotion, equity and, ultimately, health care cost savings.”

What can be done to divert, reuse and recycle stormwater?

The 2016 Georgia Stormwater Management Manual has over 20 engineering best management practices that will help a development or community capture, infiltrate, move and manage stormwater. These engineering practices can be used individually or combined to address the stormwater quality and quantity needs specific to a jurisdiction. Beyond engineering practices, there are social or operational best management practices that can also manage stormwater. These practices, such as picking up pet waste, require behavioral change at the individual or community level to reduce the amount of nonpoint source pollution in the watershed. Practices such as choosing rainwater instead of drinking water to water flowers support a paradigm shift toward rainfall as an asset instead of a problem that must be solved. A combination of engineering and operational practices will provide the most comprehensive solution to stormwater challenges. 

What has yet to be tried?

Nationally, there are varying levels of sophistication when it comes to stormwater management. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including geography, rainfall, historic watershed pollution, funding, climate and regulatory environment. In Georgia, the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District is updating the Model Ordinance for Post-Construction Stormwater Management to align with recent stormwater management regulatory changes. These changes will require local jurisdictions to use runoff reduction for managing stormwater runoff quality. Specifically, the Model Ordinance states, “The stormwater management system shall be designed to retain the first 1.0 inch of rainfall on the site using runoff reduction methods, to the maximum extent practicable.” While some communities in the District currently require runoff reduction, this change in the regulation and model ordinance will require all District members to implement this standard by December 2020.

What challenges are specific to Atlanta?

In addition to those challenges listed above, we need to consider stormwater’s role in metropolitan Atlanta’s water cycle and return stormwater to the surface water system in order for that water to regularly supplement our water supply. But this return of stormwater needs to be performed in a paced manner, all while managing flooding. The system is interconnected—stormwater, water supply and treated wastewater returns. Building structures with large evaporative stormwater losses are generally detrimental to metropolitan Atlanta’s water supply. 

Join Southface Institute on Dec. 6, from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. for Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, this time at The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design. The focus for December will be on Urban Water Challenges, Part 2 of our water series. Experts will discuss ways to mitigate, reuse and control excess surface water in the built environment. Register here.

Katherine Zitsch is Manager of Natural Resources at Atlanta Regional Commission, and Katherine Atteberry is the Stormwater Planning Manager at the Atlanta Regional Commission.


Featured Image: In Georgia, updates are being made to ordinances that require jurisdictions to reduce stormwater runoff from their sites through best management practices.


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