Oregon’s Stormwater Practices, New Solutions to an Old Problem

As readers of H2ONC know, stormwater is a persistent interest of mine as well as OSU which collaborated on the document discussed below. I hope that the report is part of an opening salvo for more engagement on stormwater. Despite our largely rural nature, stormwater is an important issue for the North Coast so check out the report!

The Oregon Environmental Council today released a first-of-its-kind report examining how Oregon’s built environment currently turns rain into a problem and how this can be corrected. Stormwater Solutions: Turning Oregon’s Rain Back into a Resource looks at water pollution and other side effects of mismanaged stormwater, providing more than 60 recommendations and policy suggestions that can protect human health, natural resources, and public infrastructure from the impacts of urban runoff.

Stormsewer. Photo by R. Emanuel

In urban areas, the hard, impervious surfaces created by buildings and pavement cause rainwater and snowmelt to flow quickly over the landscape, rather than soaking naturally into the soil or being absorbed by plants. This changes stream flows, increases flooding, endangers private and public infrastructure, erodes stream banks and channels, and destroys fish habitat. Runoff also carries pollutants such as oil, heavy metals, bacteria, sediment, pesticides, and fertilizers into streams and groundwater.

The way most urban areas currently manage stormwater increases the risk of downstream flooding, damages urban streams, and causes water pollution. While new, cost-effective technologies are available to address these problems, they are uncommon outside of Oregon’s largest cities.

“You can find some excellent examples of improved stormwater management all around the state, but institutional barriers, old habits, and a lack of resources can prevent them from becoming common practice,” said Teresa Huntsinger, program director at the Oregon Environmental Council. “Many Oregon cities lack information on best practices, have development codes that impede innovation, and need greater support from the state, including funding.”

To solve this problem, the Oregon Environmental Council and a team of 18 experts from around the state – dubbed the “Stormwater Solutions Team” – worked for over a year to develop a broad range of creative strategiesfor developers, builders, designers, state and local governments, and others to overcome existing barriers to successful stormwater management. The Stormwater Solutions Team identified two major approaches to reducing impacts of stormwater runoff:

  • Improving the way stormwater is managed by promoting green infrastructure and other best management practices
  • Reducing the sources of pollutants commonly found in stormwater

Modern approaches to stormwater management can capture runoff near its source, filter out pollutants, and allow the cleansed water to infiltrate into the soil and recharge groundwater supplies, maintaining the natural water cycle. These stormwater systems are known as “green infrastructure” or “Low Impact Development.” While these techniques are usually most cost-effective to install during new development, they can also be successfully implemented as retrofits.

To seek broad input on potential solutions, the team conducted a non-scientific survey of over 150 stormwater professionals from across Oregon. Those surveyed included developers, government employees, private firms, non-profits, and more. They helped identify the pollution sources most in need of additional attention, including oil and fluid leaks from vehicles, erosion from construction, dumping waste into stormdrains, and urban use of fertilizers and pesticides.

The report is now available online at www.oeconline.org/rivers.

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