While the rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, for most communities it falls onto areas contaminated with all kinds of materials which are readily washed away into streams and rivers. Where that storm water eventually flows, as well as what is in it has been in the crosshairs of the federal government since 1987, with the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act.
It is now a costly federal mandate that looms large for Yellowstone County and Billings, as well as ten other communities in Montana, as they struggle to meet stringent regulations and monitoring requirements. At the same time they face the possibility of the expansion of the Act, with the passage of an amendment being considered in Congress which would extend the federal government’s reach beyond urban areas and into rural areas.
County Commissioner Jim Reno recently said that “It’s a huge, potentially damaging, federal directive that will impact the way we, in the West, make a living.” He criticized the aggressive reaching of the federal mandates saying, “There is no doubt that air and water is cleaner than when I was growing up, but you reach a point of diminishing returns on minutia upgrades.”
Local officials were recently warned that after twenty years of slow progress in implementing regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is “cracking down” on enforcing storm water mandates. Its enforcement has become EPA’s top priority. The law states that any one failing to come into compliance can be fined as much as $25,000 a day and local governments could lose transportation funding.
But many communities are finding its implementation a huge and costly undertaking. For counties like Yellowstone and Cascade, it’s being viewed as an unfunded mandate.
County Commissioner Bill Kennedy laments federal legislation that is not accompanied with the funds to implement it. “That has been the toughest thing,” he said. The county has never had funding for storm water mitigation, said Kennedy, so the money the county has spent so far — “a pretty penny” – has had to come from the county Public Work’s Department, at the expense of roads and bridges.
Even the state, which will have its own inspection requirements and administers the permitting process, is having trouble funding the cost of implementation.
The other Montana communities that come under the federal government’s umbrella of enforcement include Great Falls and Cascade County, Missoula and Missoula County, Bozeman, Butte, Helena, Kalispell, as well as the campuses of the two major universities.
Other areas of the state and other communities could be pulled under the umbrella should an amendment pass the US Congress which would remove the word “navigable” from the original Act. Doing so would extend federal authority to all water bodies and all run-off, according to County Commissioner John Ostlund. That means the county would be responsible for controlling run-off from roads and other rural areas. It would mean that an even broader range of activities will be monitored and regulated, from residential living to construction sites, from industrial sites to agricultural enterprises.
The federal bureaucracy has been pushing for the broadened authority for three years. The National Association of Counties and the Montana Association of Counties (MACO) have been opposing it, “as another enormous cost placed on local government,” said Ostlund, who is currently Chairman of MACO.
“Navigable” rivers, as it currently stands in law pertains only to the Yellowstone River, which means the federal government can only regulate discharge into it, which impacts only Billings and Lockwood. But, if the federal government gains authority over all water ways that would require the development of a water collection system from all county roadways.
“The mandate is punitive and could get substantially worse,” said Ostlund.
Federal transportation funding to local communities is at risk of being withheld for non-compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Highways and roadways are considered by federal agencies to be a major source of Stormwater contaminants. Controversy regarding language in the federal transportation bill that requires compliance with the Clean Water Act and other environmental and social agendas is one of the reasons it has languished in Congress for the past two years. The transportation bill redirects about $32 billion to local communities and sets the terms – called performance programming — of spending for another $100 billion. Montana received almost $300 million in federal transportation funds over a three-year period.
For Yellowstone County the prospect of building a storm water management system is particularly daunting, since it must include Lockwood – a community of some 8000 people with very limited infrastructure to build upon. “It’s a game changer,” said Mike Black, engineer for the county’s Public Works Department, “Lockwood is likely to cost the most.” Black has been the point man for the county, working on understanding the regulations and submitting plans that advance county compliance to a degree acceptable to EPA.
Black recently joined in an interview with Boris Krizek, Environmental Engineer for the City of Billings, and Aura Linstrand, Environmental Coordinator for the City, as well as Ray Studebaker, an engineer and District Environmental Coordinator for the Montana Department of Transportation, to explain the issue and contemplate strategies.
Yellowstone County and City of Billings officials decided that there are advantages in working together, since there are areas of overlapping jurisdiction and because areas around the city are likely to eventually be incorporated into the city. The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is a co-permitee with both entities.
Over five years ago they began the process in order to get a five-year permit from the state which allows the storm water discharge from the community to flow into the Yellowstone River. Both entities have been working on updates to the plan over the past year, in order to get permitted for another five years. Both, recently received approval of their plans and got their permits.
Black lamented the lack of direction in the current regulations. “You can pretty much write your own ticket. They don’t have hard and fast criteria, which makes it difficult in trying to determine what they want to see,” said Black.
The City of Billings has some advantages in complying since it already has a regulatory agency in place, a revenue stream, water labs, and code enforcement agents which can incorporate storm water regulations. The city council recently approved a set of storm water mitigation regulations which will mandate that all construction sites abide by “best practices” standards.
Even at that, the city faces a gargantuan challenge. The city must eventually upgrade its storm water management system, at an estimated cost of $165 million. (A sewer system is different than a storm water management system.) The City is undertaking the project in incremental steps.
Krizek believes an additional $200,000 will be needed annually. “We will have to have more feet on the ground to inspect. We can use existing staffing and code inspectors but it will have to double up on inspections.”
The City of Billings has been acquiring property and assets that will help in retaining runoff and for the development of retention ponds, which could include irrigation ditches and drains for Stormwater systems.
Yellowstone County stands behind the city, said Black, “They wanted the city to take the lead, because this is an urbanized area and some of what it affects will likely be annexed some day.”
Draft regulations are in the works for the county.
The problem for the County is finding in the budget at least $100,000, which is what a consulting firm estimated would be the annual cost of enforcement. Black said that he believes it will take at least one full time employee to administer a program, which will require that the county establish a department, unlike anything they have had in the past, to regulate land use and permitting processes.
That doesn’t begin to consider the cost of developing a storm water collection system for Lockwood. “Lockwood is going to be our challenge,” said Ostlund, “Look at the price tag for Billings. I don’t know how you pay for something like that. It will have a substantial impact on our budget.”
At the fore of regulations in Billings and Yellowstone County are construction sites.
Construction sites are a primary concern, since they result in massive disturbance of the ground surface. Sediment runoff rates from construction sites are typically 1000 to 2000 times greater than from prairie land.
Krizek said that the City of Billings has adopted regulations that will require developers to retain as much storm water on site as possible, during the process of construction.
Storm water is considered any naturally occurring precipitation, such as rain or snow melt, which is discharged on the surface. In populated areas or areas of human activity the water often contains construction waste, animal waste, bacteria, pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, oils, salts and metals – all of which, it is contended, pose hazards if allowed to flow into primary water sources, without treatment.
Targets of concern and regulation which extend beyond construction sites, include industrial sites, shopping centers, farms, residential areas — almost any area that involves intense human activity.
The simple chore of a homeowner cleaning the driveway becomes a subject of applying “best practices.” “You should avoid using a hose,” explained Black— sweeping is the preferred practice.
Such simple ideas are the subject of a public information and awareness campaign, which is considered to be an important part of mitigation efforts. Getting the public to understand and change their practices will minimize the problem greatly, explained Black, “People often do not think of the consequences of common practices.” Disposing of household chemicals, clean up after painting, or handling the old oil after changing the oil in one’s vehicle —all are common activities that can significantly impact the level of contaminants that wind up in rivers and streams.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103