State looks to soften new rules on towns' storm water systems

Cost concerns raised by towns and cities have the state rethinking some tough new regulations on storm runoff that it was working on.

A revised version of the proposed new “MS 4 permit” rules — the regulations governing municipal storm sewers, or town road drainage systems — is expected to be done in late January.

The revisions will change the way the state regulates duties that generally fall to town highway departments, such as street sweeping, cleaning of catch basins, management of fallen leaves, and water quality monitoring of storm water discharges. Area town officials, including Wilton First Selectman Bill Brennan, have said these changes will add considerably to municipal budgets in manpower and equipment costs. They are, he said, “an unfunded mandate on the towns,” during a year-end discussion with The Bulletin last month.

Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) said in a late December news release that it is “considering modifications to key provisions of proposed new permit requirements for the management and oversight of municipal storm water systems in an effort to address concerns expressed by cities and towns — while still allowing the agency to achieve important environmental objectives.”

The DEEP’s decision to rework its draft regulations followed a Dec. 17 public hearing in Hartford, at which local officials worried aloud about the potential costs of meeting new requirements the state had proposed. Some 200 people turned out for the hearing, and about 35 spoke — most of them officials from towns and cities or organizations like the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities or the Connecticut Council of Small Towns.

Environmental groups, however, support the state’s effort to tighten up clean-water practices.

Roger Reynolds, legal director of Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s Save the Sound program, said that to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, Connecticut needs to tighten and enforce the storm water rules — which are designed to limit pollution that runs off paved surfaces and into streams, rivers and, eventually, Long Island Sound.

“Really, storm water from municipal storm sewers is the primary driver of pollution today,” Mr. Reynolds said.

The main pollution we’re worried about today tends to be bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorous.

“It’s really the problem we have to crack if we want to have clean, drinkable, swimable healthy water.”

The state’s Dec. 17 public hearing was on a proposal to tighten up practices towns and cities have been asked to follow for years, as the state attempts to meet the federal Clean Water Act standards.

State DEEP officials said after the hearing they’d talk to local leaders about changes to language in the draft permit, and circulate a revised version by Jan. 26.

The formal parties to the discussion — state DEEP staff, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the Council of Small Towns, and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment — are scheduled to meet with the hearing officer for a  “status conference” Feb. 5 to report on the progress of their discussions and determine the next steps in the process of finalizing new permit requirements.

Oswald Inglese Jr., DEEP’s director of water permitting and enforcement, said that in reviewing the proposed new rules, the state would try to address the towns’ concerns.

“We understand that our cities and towns are facing tough budget times, and through our public hearing process local officials told us about the potential costs of implementing the new storm water requirements,” Mr. Inglese said.

“That is why we will continue a dialogue with our municipal partners in an effort to reach agreement on final language for this permit that strengthens environmental protection in a common-sense and fiscally prudent manner.”

Mr. Inglese said that while DEEP considers the ability of cities and towns to meet new requirements, it also has an obligation to move forward with improvements to the management of storm water because of the toll it takes on the quality of the state’s environment and waters.

“Storm water carries contaminants into our lakes, rivers, streams, and Long Island Sound — the water bodies that make Connecticut a special place to live and the places where we all want to enjoy swimming, fishing and boating,” Mr. Inglese said.  “We must take steps to reduce the level of contamination discharged into our water from storm water systems.”

Polluted storm runoff is part of the legacy of continuing land development around the state.

“As Connecticut has grown, our landscape has more hard and impervious surfaces where storm water systems have replaced the natural infiltration processes that allowed storm water to be absorbed back into the ground,” Mr. Inglese said. “This means increasing amounts of polluted storm water runoff are being carried into our waterways — degrading water quality, threatening recreational opportunities, and putting habitats and aquatic species at risk.”