Taming the Asphalt Jungle


Rain gardens and pervious pavers are encroaching on hard surfaces as Richmond’s three-year-old stormwater utility rolls out programs to control flooding and reduce runoff into the James River.

by James A. Bacon

It’s not often that Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond’s inner city generates positive attention but June 1 was a special day. Mayor Dwight Jones, Congressman Bobby Scott and assorted state and local dignitaries gathered to celebrate the inauguration of a storm water garden on what had been a gray asphalt school yard.

Dressed in bright white shirts and dark pants, four school children filed up to the podium to read to the assembled audience. “Have you ever seen it rain so hard that rain came running down off the roof, rushing down the sidewalk or covering the street? The water is known as storm water,” read one student.”The water picks up trash, dog droppings and fertilizer, carrying it into the creeks and rivers,” continued another. “Richmond City built this beautiful rain garden at Chimborazo Elementary School… The soil and plants will soak up some of the water that would run down into the storm drain…”

As a practical matter, the Chimborazo rain garden has little more than symbolic value. A few square yards of vegetative buffer on a school yard will do little in a city of 60 square miles to curb the problem of urban storm water runoff, stream erosion and pollution in the James River. But it’s a start. And it’s a visible example of taxpayer dollars at work. The project was funded, with state assistance, by the Richmond Stormwater Utility.

Richmond’s infrastructure, more than a century old in parts of the city, has serious storm water issues. In major downpours, storm water mixes with sewage, overwhelms the sewage treatment plant and flows into the James River. In other sections of the city, storm water rampages through creeks and streams, erodes banks and washes sediment into the river. Localized flooding is also a problem in many neighborhoods.

The stormwater utility, created in 2009, raises about $9 million a year by taxing property owners based on the area of impervious surface on their land.The city charges homeowners a fee ranging from $25 to $75 per year, depending upon the size of their lots, and non-residential property owners $45 per Equivalent Residential Unit.

Michelle Virts

“With a dedicated funding source, we can take a more proactive approach,” says Michelle Virts, deputy director of utilities in charge of stormwater, floodwater and wastewater (anything that relies upon gravity pipes, as she puts it). “We’re addressing the backlog of drainage complaints plus some capital improvements.”

People understand the necessity of paying water and sewer bills — they get tangible value in the form of functioning spigots and toilets. The stormwater fee is a harder sell. Indeed, the city is owed $6.8 million in uncollected stormwater fees because so many people have been unable or unwilling to pay. After taking a soft approach to collections of the new and unfamiliar fee, city officials have begun discussing whether to crank up collections efforts. The city is feeling heat from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve its stormwater control programs, and the money is needed.

The problems with stormwater are real, even if they are invisible to Richmond residents. Stormwater runoff washes fertilizer, pesticides, sediment and other pollution into James River and, ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay.

“Of all the sources of pollution plaguing the Bay and its tributaries, the only one that’s not improving is stormwater runoff,” says Chuck Epes, assistant director of media relations with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. With assistance from the EPA and the state, Virginia cities are upgrading their sewage treatment plants. Farmers are installing conservation practices to control pesticides, fertilizers and manure. But as Virginia’s population swells, houses, driveways, parking lots roads and other impermeable surface is replacing farms, forest and wetlands.

This “non-point source pollution” is so ubiquitous that it’s the hardest to tackle, says Epes. “It’s your back yard, my front yard. … It costs a lot of money to retrofit. … But if we don’t get a handle on stormwater runoff, it will overwhelm the improvements we’ve made on other fronts.” Read more.

23 Responses to Taming the Asphalt Jungle

  1. Pingback: Taming the Asphalt Jungle | Bacon's Rebellion | Suburban Land Trusts | Scoop.it

  2. Storm water is a significant issue and what I find interesting is that it’s up to the EPA not Via or Richmond or homeowners to deal with it, in fact, it’s characterized as the ‘fault’ of EPA that something has to be done about it. Why is that?

  3. If the rain soaks into the ground or goes into a barrel, how is it ‘runoff’?

  4. re: into the ground and into the barrel…

    if that is what happens there is no “runoff”.

    but even in a totally forested area – if there is enough rain there will be runoff into creeks and water bodies.

    When that happens in a forest.. you end up with leaf litter and vegetation washing into the creek/water body – no harm, no foul – worked that way for thousands of years and the Potomac, York, Rappahannock and Chesapeake Bay were near pristine and a cornucopia of sea food when John smith did his thing.

    but when there is a lot of rain on impervious surfaces – even if they are clean – it increases the amount of runoff and that in turn can cause streams to start cutting banks and doing the kind of stream bank damage that – in a natural condition – might happen once in a hundred years but in a urbanized situation – 10, 20, 30, 50 times in 100 years. The frequency and size of the runoff is larger with impervious surfaces.

    It that alone was the only issue – it might not be terrible but the impervious surfaces in urbanized areas are not at all “clean”.

    they are pet feces, motor oil and antifreeze, chemicals, salt from winter, sewage, gasoline, etc.

    the ways to deal with stormwater are to sequester it in ponds and underground tanks that meter the water gradually into the soil and other facilities – that are expensive because you’re trying to retrofit this stuff in areas that are already developed and built up.

    A new 7-11 or a VDOT road will require a storm pond but what do you do with a 30 year 0ld 7-11 surrounded by other buildings?

  5. This is an important topic. Storm water damage can be large but insidious.

    Thus, unlike a four car pileup hurting people on your front lawn, the problem, however big, is often unseen. Or easy to ignore.

    The great caution, however, is that mindless Bureaucrats and ideologue Environmentalists far too often abuse such issues. Use them to put their “noses under our tent” to take us back to the Stone Age, or use them as Trojan Horses to achieve whole varieties of new and old hidden Agendas. Such Abuse is so common that one need not dilate on the possibilities.

    What is encouraging here, in this article above, is its descriptions that show the imagination and effort that’s going into trying to leverage this problem into positive opportunities. Rather the leverage it into an endless diktats that overburden other citizens. Most particularly those some proponents too often do not like because they build things like the homes we live in, or generate the low cost power that benefits us in so many way, or engage in other highly creative endeavors that create wealth and spread it around in ways that far too many people with otherwise legitimate Environmental concerns don’t understand or appreciate.

    This is so encouraging. There are so many ways to solve problem the right way, if folks just keep at it by thinking out of the box, positively, not negatively. Win/Win is key. Particularly now, in this Society. Cause we are certifiably broke.

    So go Chimborazo Elementary School – maybe? If there’s consistent follow up.

  6. actually this is an example of how people think about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to “downstream”.

    for years and years – people would dump whatever they not want – usually waste – into a stream and it went downstream and the water downstream became progressively dirtier and less clean for downstream property owners.

    Rivers became cess pools but no one who was upstream considered it their responsibility.

    this is the same exact problem but in a 21st century context where, again, people do not really appreciate that what they do (or not) on their property can still how downstream consequences.

    The question is – can this problem be solved by letting each landowner decide to do what they think is “right”?

    and the answer is pretty clear; we have a LOT of history and experience to show this does not work.

    this is why you have an EPA or a DEQ with “mindless bureaucrats”.

    what would you do instead?

    just letting each landowner decide to do what they think is best will not solve the problem.

    that’s unrealistic and it fails – we know this.

    Water and sewer costs a crap-load of money (pardon the pun) but what would many property owners do if they did not have government-provided-dictated (by “bureaucratic) water/sewer (or septic systems)?

    We already know the answer to that – look at any 3rd world country or look at this country in the 18th and 19th century.

    it’s easy to blame “mindless bureaucrats” but in the end – what would be the alternative?

    sometimes we are opposed to governance but we have no real alternatives to it but instead of either accepting that reality or coming up with a better alternative, we just oppose governance in general – i.e people won’t pay their fair share of stormwater fees.

    The same folks would likely not pay for water/sewer either if there was no way to cut it off, eh?

    By the way, no one is after “pristine” in the James or Potomac or any other river.

    the basic rule is – can the critters who normally live in such habitats in clean waterways, live in waterways near urban areas.

    When the fish are intersex or have cancerous tumors and other critters lead similar tortured lives or just cannot survive – as a result of our activities – what’s the right answer?

    I would posit that most of us stand around pontificating about it and bureaucrats get hired to “deal” with it.

    And that some of us (perhaps most of us) expect them to fix it but not bother us and when they come back and tell us that we have to pay to fix it – then the trouble starts and “something” has to be done about the “job killing” EPA or DEQ or whatever.

    We’re essentially conflicted by this – and just won’t deal with the realities – and don’t want to stinking govt types telling us either.

  7. Regulation requires a balancing act. Yes, Larry, we do need regulations to solve a problem like this, which means we do need bureaucrats to administer them. My sense is that, in this case, the EPA is doing a reasonable job of keeping the heat on localities to clean up stormwater without going overboard and imposing onerous financial burdens. We are moving along at a pace that we can bear.

  8. Jim – my question is WHY does Virginia NEED the EPA to “breathe down it’s neck” to start with?

    Why doesn’t Virginia do what needs to be done without the EPA?

    It’s EASY to blame “mindless bureaucrats” but what exactly is your alternative and what good does any of it do – if any/all government people involved in the effort, local, state and Federal or all characterized as “mindless bureaucrats” by the most virulent anti-govt, right-wing folks?

    Why should the EPA have to ride herd of Virginia and Richmond on it’s own waterways to start with?

    bonus question – Is a Virginia employee of DEQ and more or less a “mindless bureaucrat” than an EPA employee?

    when we DEMAGOGUE the regulators, how do we agree on what to do after that?

    • I agree with much, indeed most, of that Larry (and Jim) say above.

      But I use the term “Mindless Bureaucrats” for a reason. It’s not because there are not many fine and competent bureaucrats in Government. And its not because Government is not an essential player in helping to insure that our Environment is protected.

      I use the term because , in my view, far too often the Government, when acting in the Environment’s name, is guilty of gross overreach that does great harm to this Country. And “Mindless Bureaucrats” far too often get away with it. It’s akin to Storm Water – It’s damage is large but insidious. And often unseen. And/or easy to ignore. But it’s also easy to make money from, or gain power from, such overreach. Then of course, it also corrupts, deepening the intractability of the problem.

      So, what would otherwise be the overuse of hyperbole, becomes an essential weapon instead, against this tide of overreach that always wants to rise.

  9. re: “mindless” and “guilty of gross overreach that does great harm to this Country”

    again – why does the EPA has to tell Virginia what to do in the first place?

    why doesn’t Virginia take the necessary steps to safeguard it’s own waterways so that “mindless bureaucrats from Washington are not able to do “harm”?

    We have a serious problem with stormwater runoff – and we are so politicized that just the issue of trying to do something about it – becomes a political divide – which I say is caused in no small part
    by the hate-filled demagoguery of the right wing against the EPA and environmental regulations ( “job-killing” regulations ) in general.

    how did we get to the point where recognizing stormwater runoff as a problem that needs to be dealt with – defaults to the national level where it riles up the anti-govt folks?

    Virginia could be a leader on it’s own in storm water regulations – home grown ones that make more sense and minimize the “mindless” regulations but what does Va do instead?

    When does Virginia take responsibility and take the heat from it’s own citizens rather than cowardly blaming the EPA?

    do you see where I’m coming from on this? The EPA is damned if they do and damned if they don’t and meanwhile Va does what?

  10. Pingback: “Bacon’s Rebellion” blog post on the spreading of pervious sufaces into human laid asphalt mantle « SUSTAINING*VALUES

  11. Larry, I think you’re arguing here more with your perception that I might tend toward what you see as the “hate-filled demagoguery of the right wing against the EPA and environmental regulations ( “job-killing” regulations ) in general”, rather than reading carefully what I said above.

    In fact, I said I was impressed and encouraged by Jim’s excellently written article, the environmental work it described, and those doing the job.

    What I cautioned about, however, is in my view quite well justified. EPA is trying to shut down the coal industry. EPA has thwarted the Keystone Pipeline. EPA is working overtime to do the same with Fracking Industry. Thus cuts into the heart of our economic recovery. It thwarts the ability of our fellow citizens to find jobs, earn a living, feed their families, and get their kids a good education, not to mention start a business. ‘

    Meanwhile EPA and its cohorts have spent 49 years and wasted untold billions of OUR MONEY pushing Green energy which today has no larger share of the Market (namely 3%) that it had 40 years ago. Instead the EPA should have been working with Industry to find ways to cleaner coal generation, safer nuclear, and cheaper gas, so the levels of poverty would decline, and the income of the middle class would rise, and 23 million more Americans would have the jobs they deserve.

    Hence, when EPA tells me something, its always going to have to bear the burden of proof. Why? Because their past conduct demands it.

  12. Reed – I do not consider your remarks “hate filled” but you are touting the right wing narrative about the EPA who are a govt agency that is basically following the laws that have been passed by Congress.

    you are attributing to them an ‘agenda’ of which is not true unless one subscribes to the right wing narratives.

    I think you are ignoring all the other things the EPA did – that you benefit from – especially getting deadly toxics out of rivers and the air you breathe.

    do you know how many people a year die prematurely as a result of air pollution? thousands …but much fewer than before the EPA tightened up air quality regs.

    Coal pollution kills people guy. it also puts mercury into the environment. It’s responsible for non-attainment in many urban areas like NoVa.

    do you think the trade for “jobs” is worth the deaths?

    Keystone is a sham. There are hundreds of existing pipelines in the region and not a one was “shut down” by the EPA.

    the EPA does not have a record of “shutting down pipelines” either.

    Do you remember Kepone in the James or PCBs in the Shenandoah at Front Royal?

    do you consider the outlawing of Kepone and PCBs as “job killing”?

    what I’m pointing out here is that the right wing narrative focuses ONLY on some things and trumped up at that and they ignore the other good things that EPA has done.

    you’re playing right into their jobs vs pollution narrative which is totally wrong.

    regulations PROVIDE jobs… they require industry to hire MORE workers to install, maintain and operate pollution controls.

    anything the right wing says about the EPA is suspect in my book.

    and again – I point out to you that Virginia has always had the option of dealing with Kepone, PCBs, air pollution that kills citizens, and mercury instead of letting the EPA do it and Va has been AWOL on pollution that harms it’s own citizens preferring to, in effect, trade jobs for lives.

    I’m not an enviro-weenie. I understand that pollution is a necessary part of the economy but I do not agree with Virginia’s cowardly and hypocritical approach of not doing anything about it themselves and then blaming EPA for doing what Va would not do.

    The Storm Water issue is an excellent example and instead of rightly hammering Va for it’s inaction – you go right to blaming the EPA for all manner of unrelated “wrongs”.

    that’s wrong in my book guy. One needs to take a principled stand on pollution and the environment and what to do about it – forthrightly or admit bias in favor of pollution and that’s not really an EPA problem even though it’s convenient to use them for a whipping boy.

    Are you in favor of the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup by the way?

    are you in favor of the cleanup but opposed to what needs to be done to actually clean it up?

    because that seems to me to be what I hear… sometimes …and perhaps I got it wrong.

  13. EPA has done much good, particularly in its earlier Years.

    But I believe that its suffers from two major problems which have seriously eroded its performance. First, it thinks it needs to pursue perfection whatever the cost. Second, its priorities have been horribly skewed by the ideologues.

    Imagine if all the money and effort spent and wasted on Green Energy had been spent on finding ways to produce cleaner coal, safer Nuclear, and more gas.

  14. Reed – are you sure it’s the EPA that spent on “green energy”? Haven’t you got your agencies mixed up. EPA is not energy.

    And if the EPA were ideologues – how could they do things that are not allowed in the laws that Congress passed and Judges rule on?

    and actually I do NOT agree that it should pursue anything no matter the cost. I think the studies should be done and the truth
    documented and then go from there.

    The storm water issue is an excellent example. The EPA has clearly and convincingly documented and proved the problem with storm water and now that we need to actually do something about it – we go back to the “blame EPA” narrative.

    to which I can only say WTF?

    that’s why I say that no matter what they do – they get blamed even as we take for granted that what they are telling us about storm water runoff – is, in fact, the gospel truth. Yet we attack them for “other things” … rather than actually deal with what they tell us about stormwater.

    the right wing is not rational when it comes to the EPA. ideologues is the correct word but it applies to the opponents of the EPA more more accurately.

  15. Pingback: Urban Stormwater Runoff – It Is a Concern Even During Election Season « The Inlet

  16. “Reed – are you sure it’s the EPA that spent on “green energy”? Haven’t you got your agencies mixed up. EPA is not energy.”

    No, I have not – EPA and DOE march lockstep, they’re Ying / Yang, feeding off one another, under current administration.

    “And if the EPA were ideologues – how could they do things that are not allowed in the laws that Congress passed and Judges rule on?”

    Your supposition is wrong – EPA and DOE make up their own rules as they go along, irrespective of Congress. Indeed, particularly so, if Congress fails to Act – Witness Carbon as recent example. But this is older than Moses.

    These Agencies are Poster Children for the Iron Rule of Politics since Biblical Times – if you want Centralized Control Driven by Ideology hire the Experts, the engineers and now the PHDs in hard Sciences, as your tools. Tyrants have deployed this psychological insight to drive Centralized control since the time of the Pharaohs. The late 19th Century rise of Science has elevated the problem to monstrous proportions in War and Peace.

    “the right wing is not rational when it comes to the EPA.”

    Who’s Right Wing around here, Larry? Surely not me, Larry. And if EPA were rational, they would had given up on Green Energy in the mid-1980’s, after years of absolute failure.

  17. Reed – you are a right wing guy by your own admission. Conflating the EPA and DOE in terms of policies presumes there is a conspiracy among Federal Agencies to violate the law and Congress and the Supreme Court helpless in stopping them.. EPA cannot write rules that violate the law.

    you cannot deal with the real world if you simply refuse to understand realities.

    that’s the problem with the right. They live in their own self-constructed world – in denial – refusing to recognize the simple truth.

    you can’t be part of the world, as it works, much less part of changes for the better if you cannot deal with or refuse to deal with the truth.

    and the truth is that EPA is hated by the right – but the EPA can only make rules that are consistent with the laws that have been passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court.

    Mr. Bush and the GOP had more than ample opportunity when they held all 3 branches of govt – The Presidency, both Senate and Congress, and the Supreme Court – to neuter EPA – and what did they do?

    What did Virginia do about environmental protection of it’s own air and water?

    the reality is that Virginia chose to ignore protection of it’s own air and water and that Congress passed a law that said if a State refuses to deal with it’s own environmental protection – that the EPA will step in.

    So when you have a blog post that deals with Virginia’s wimpy response to stormwater – the right will devolve it to be about the EPA rather than why Virginia chooses to not act on it’s own.

    You blame EPA for what Virginia refuses to do?

    that’s ignoring reality guy.

  18. Goodness, Larry, I consider myself quite liberal on most matters. And a “right winger” on none.

    And thank goodness my world is not so simple as yours appears to be (at least on these matters as of today). Perhaps it will moderate over time.

  19. my world is not simple Reed and yes you are spouting right wing talking points.

    No “liberal” has your view of the EPA. Most moderates do not have your view of the EPA.

    It is a typical right wing view of the EPA guy so you can take off your costume.

    and again – Va has the right and authority to take control of it’s own environmental protection and proactively keep the EPA from a direct role and I asked why Va has chosen to not do that… and I get no answer ..just blame of EPA.

  20. re: “I’m a liberal” and not a right winger masquerading as one.

    Let’s hear a few of your positions on the classic liberal/conservative divides guy.

    you choose them but I will if you won’t.

    show how you are a “liberal”.

    :-)

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