By Sean Ryan
Municipal officials see a proposed change in state runoff rules as flexibility. But to a clean water advocate, it looks more like a loophole.
The state runoff rules, created in 2004, are intended to decrease the amount of dirt and pollution that storm water carries into waterways. Many municipalities are building storm-water retention ponds to satisfy the rules. But for communities that are built out, the projects can be too costly.
In response to some municipal leaders’ claims that they cannot afford to satisfy the rules, a proposed revision sets a maximum amount that municipalities must spend.
“I think the cities that I work with, many of them are making progress,” said Jim Bachhuber, national storm water practice leader in the Madison office of engineering firm Aecom Inc. “Many are doing these projects. It’s just a matter of how many can you do and how long can you do it?”
The spending limit — the result of years of negotiations by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, engineering companies, state agencies, local government officials and environmental groups — is part of a broad revision (PDF) of the state runoff rules. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board on Friday will consider sending the revised rules out for public comment.
The state requires municipalities to cut the amount of dirt and other solids in storm-water runoff to 40 percent of 2004 levels by April 2013.
Under the proposal, municipalities’ costs for runoff reduction will be limited to an increase in the annual tax rate of 37 cents per $1,000 of property value.
Municipalities that spend that amount on projects cannot by penalized if they fall short of the state’s requirement.
Karen Schapiro, executive director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a clean water advocacy nonprofit, said she is sensitive to municipalities’ cost pressures. But, she said, the state should demand proof that municipalities’ projects are improving water cleanliness before giving them a pass based on how much money they spent.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a dollar cap in all events,” Schapiro said, “But it needs further definition or further plumbing to ensure that in fact best management practices were looked into and applied.”
Municipalities sought the dollar limit because the existing definition of a good-faith effort to comply with the rule is foggy, said Bachhuber, who consulted the League of Wisconsin Municipalities on the runoff rule revision. Without a revision, municipalities are struggling to determine what they must do to get an exemption from the state rules, he said.
But Schapiro said the proposed revision contains too much wiggle room.
Overcomplicated definitions of best practices and dollar limits create loopholes that may take away the DNR’s power to make local governments comply with the rules.
“That’s the worry,” Schapiro said. “There are words in there like ‘systemic.’ There are words in there that are ambiguous, and any time there is ambiguity, it creates the possibility for some good lawyering and some good engineering.”