Growth and Stormwater

A Tennessee bill to limit stormwater runoff regulations caught my attention recently. I am ill-equipped to provide much comment on the specifics, but just reading some of the rationale and quotes caused me to think. I have seen similar proposals in other states, including my own.

Unfortunately, one of the real drivers of Stormwater awareness in Tennessee was a 2010 flooding event in Nashville that was made worse by years of neglected stormwater management and vision. The article and the bill miss that point.

Atlanta SW park

Historic Fourth Ward Park, Atlanta

“We are used to fighting job-stifling over regulation from Washington. It’s a shame that we now have to fight job-stifling over regulation from our state government.” This quote from a congressperson isn’t surprising. It has become the easy strategy for moving an agenda. Link the enemy (stormwater regulation in this case) to the federal government, to EPA, or to Obama, and you’re in. No questions asked in many cases. Not really too much to consider on that point.

However, another traditional statement and claim is worth a closer look, I think. What seems to be worthy of questioning, in my opinion, is whether or not increased environmental regulation (again, stormwater regulation in this case) does actual harm to a city’s growth or to the quality of life for a community’s inhabitants. The state legislature was told that the “present process makes developers inclined to move their projects across the state line.”

This quote was referencing a requirement to retain the first 1 inch of runoff from a property. The bill would apparently do away with the requirement and cause state regulation to never become more stringent than federal requirements (ironically and essentially deferring the State’s decsion-making back to “Obama and his EPA”). The thinking leans on the 2012 Virginia case where the state won an argument that EPA cannot regulate stormwater itself as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act. 

So, does stormwater regulation hinder development and growth? I don’t have a great answer. A direct correlation between a city’s attractiveness and it’s promotion of sustainable stormwater practices isn’t clear to me. But a quick search of the fastest growing cities in America and those cities that are ranked as “most livable,” or “best places to live,” reveals that in spite of progressive stormwater regulation and efforts in many of those cities, they are still finding ways to thrive. Some of the cities that pop up in both high desirability rankings and in our stormwater conversations include Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Rochester, Denver, Boulder, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, etc.

One Texas city in particular, Houston, has established itself as a leader in sustainable stormwater. However, the rise of Green Infrastructure and Low Impact Development approaches there haven’t been driven by regulation, and Certainly not by the Federal Government. As I understand, stormwater growth there has been driven by economics. It simply makes good sense.

A few lessons in all of this – maybe rigid regulation that dictates arbitrary thresholds aren’t socially palatable (or legally defensible) today. Maybe having the Trifecta as a goal could help with social and political acceptance. And maybe the free market will eventually prove out that smart stormwater management is good for us and could make our communities more attractive rather than less attractive.

I just hope that most state legislators will let that process fully play out rather than micromanaging cities in ways they say they loathe their big brother pushes them around.

Is your community experiencing stormwater fight flight? Or have stormwater improvements actually made your town a better place to live and work?



“The world belongs to those who think and act with it, who keep a finger on its pulse.”

– William R. Inge

2 thoughts on “Growth and Stormwater

  • I can see eyes rolling all over the country as they read that the Houston area is a place that’s “established itself as a leader in sustainable stormwater.”

    Our local regulations are in fact, lightweight compared to other places where the adoption of sustainable stormwater practices like LID, are implemented widely. Unfortunately, in those more heavily regulated communities, the regulatory burdens typically makes LID/Green Infrastructure unnecessarily costly at best, and poorly implemented and prone to failure, at worst, as a result of ‘design by committee’/’copied off the internet’ regulatory regimes and obstacles to the implementation of new technology/practices.

    The good news for Houston is that we weren’t overly burdened with regulation, and we were blessed with forward thinking leadership, led by Harris County, as well as some within the City. As a result, we were encouraged to adapt innovative technologies and approaches to maintenance that have driven implementation costs down to the point that the developer or public infrastructure designer finds it difficult to ignore the substantial cost savings or avoid acknowledging the other very real benefits to them directly related to quality of life and public demand for sustainable solutions. Really? In the Houston area? Yep, it’s a ‘make it happen’ kind of place.

  • Bob, if you put off doing right things long enough, sooner or later a regulator will come along and make you do it their way. And their way is likely going to be more expensive. Thanks for the comment.

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