Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stormwater, Stormwater Everywhere, and Not a Drop for the Cows to Drink

Sunday's Sun relays the unfortunate, though not uncommon, consequences of poor stormwater design, and the comedy of errors that can ensue trying to correct it. It's a tale about a Prince George's farmer, Joseph Mills, whose creek dried up after a development went in upstream, and who has been forced to resort to watering his cattle from a fire hydrant as a result.

The ironically named Oasis Farms, an 1,800 home, mixed use community outside Bowie, put in a 6-acre farm pond, with the Army Corps of Engineers assent, to detain stormwater runoff from the property. Problem is, the stormwater that fell on that site prior to development and was converted into groundwater provided base flow for Mr. Mills' stream, an unnamed tributary of the Patuxent River.

The developer, General Growth insists it did nothing wrong, and the regulators, who unanimously approved the plans, are falling all over themselves to pin responsibility for the matter on each other. Despite the fact that, "the plan pointed out there would be both temporary and permanent changes to the way in which water drained off the land," it was approved.

And that was only the beginning. The stormwater pond not only caused the stream to dry up, it also starved a downstream wetland of water. A wetland drained of water isn't particularly good habitat, and scores of turtles, frogs, and snakes that had inhabitated it were crushed on the road seeking wetter pastures. At this point, you may ask: "Couldn't they just drain the pond?" No, they can't, because now it's polluted.

So what is the solution proposed by regulators? Drill a well and pump up groundwater to the surface to flood the area again. Nevermind the fact that that's probably only going to worsen the problem since it originated with loss of groundwater re-charge in the first place. (Some other regulators apparently suggested conveying stormwater from elsewhere into the stream, of course a bad idea because it is loaded with pollutants).

So what is the correct solution? The right solution now is the same as it was before the development went in and what it should have been required of the development itself: Use infiltration systems, like bioretention areas throughout the community to convert stormwater to groundwater. These methods, which are one component of low impact development were actually honed in Prince George's County and, the Low Impact Development Center, a clearinghouse on low impact development, is based in Beltsville.

Maryland counties have the capacity to require that low impact development methods and infiltration be used on every new development project. Why do we continue to settle for less?

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