State slow to embrace new approach to storm runoff pollution

TORRINGTON — Kim Barbieri, the zoning and wetlands enforcement officer here, points to what looks like a gravel-topped garden set in a steep concrete sidewalk in this city’s old downtown. There is one cherry tree growing in it.

“If I took a gallon of water and dumped it right here, it would not spill off of this,” she said. “It would just go straight in.”

And that, surprisingly, is a big deal.

The gravel in fact is called FlexiPave, a carpet-like aggregate of recycled rubber and gravel. Underneath is soil engineered at Cornell University that includes large stone, compost and mortar. The two allow the tree to grow without its roots heaving the concrete and water to filter naturally through the ground, a process that will clean it before it winds up in the nearby Naugatuck River, which leads to the Housatonic, which eventually dumps into Long Island Sound.


Trees are set in a porous aggregate of gravel and rubber.

This is an example of what’s known in the current green lexicon as low impact development, or LID. It covers a host of techniques, zoning and engineering practices designed to more environmentally handle stormwater runoff, which in Connecticut has a major impact the water quality in the Sound.

Simple concept, yes? But in practice here, LID gets hit-and-miss attention with minimal funding, even though there is a demonstration project on the state Capitol grounds. Unlike the sweeping policy, coordination and financing mechanism the state now has for energy, communities and even state agencies interested in LID are pretty much on their own.

“The practice in the region is really advancing; just in five years there’s a significant amount of momentum building,” said Robert Roseen, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Stormwater Center which researches and advises on the subject and has become the go-to source for the northeast, if not the nation, on LID-related matters.

“Connecticut certainly is not in the forefront on that,” he said. “You’d think the interest would be enormous considering the Long Island Sound issues.”

The FlexiPave in Torrington was installed as part of a 10-community Municipal Land Use Evaluation pilot project in the Farmington River watershed that, if not for a $500,000 fine against Hamilton Sundstrand in 2007 for environmental violations, might have never happened. The money went to help the communities take steps towards changing how they handle stormwater, from regulations going forward to actual projects.

But with the money spent, about the best the state can offer at the moment is advice and encouragement along with examples of LID that are installed around the Capitol in Hartford, including porous pavement and small rain gardens.

“We’ve directly worked with 10 towns and we’re hoping that other towns will see this, will talk to someone from another town and we just hope they contact us and ask for additional information,” said MaryAnn Nusom Haverstock, the supervising environmental analyst with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection handling the project. “The hope is we’ve planted some seed money here but it will go much, much further.”

The general function of LID is to limit the time water spends on paved surfaces collecting oils and other contaminants by dealing with it as close to its source as possible. Techniques typically include retention ponds that allow runoff to filter naturally instead of through expensive piping and catch basins, narrower roads without curbs, rain gardens that direct runoff for horticultural purposes and use of pervious concrete, asphalt and pavers that also mean less piping and more natural filtration.

Rain garden

A rain garden in Torrington.

Researchers like Roseen, advocates, communities that have begun limited LID as well as private adopters point out that many of these are less expensive than conventional engineering, and even the ones with higher upfront costs in the long term are likely to save money. Some, however, like certain pervious pavements, can have higher maintenance costs.

Stormwater management is driven by performance standards for how clean runoff must ultimately be as dictated by the federal Clean Water Act. States implement the standards through what are known as stormwater permits. How water is cleaned generally is a function of local zoning laws and land use policies.

Tightening regulatory requirements typically has been the impetus behind zoning and land use changes, including those considered “green.” Municipalities, Roseen said, are unlikely to embrace LID without some kind of regulatory push.

Connecticut is just finishing a two-year process – several years late environmental advocates point out — to revise its stormwater permit regulations in anticipation of tighter requirements expected from the Environmental Protection Agency in another year or so. Some of the Connecticut permit manuals will now include appendices covering LID, but they are guidance, not requirements.

Advocates and others say that’s not enough; that what the state needs is an overarching LID policy goal.

“A more cohesive message from the state to towns would be helpful,” said Michael Dietz, the water resources educator for the Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) program run through the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension to help municipalities manage land use and resources. “It is a little bit difficult. People don’t like heavy-handed regulations.”

Within state government, agencies are encouraged — not required — to use LID. The Department of Transportation, with ongoing new work and continuous repair projects even in difficult economic times that have stymied much of the new construction for which LID is most cost-effective, uses LID when it’s appropriate and possible such as on the I-95/91 interchange and Quinnipiac River Bridge project, said Chief Engineer Thomas Harley. But he said most projects aren’t tearing up whole roadways. “We’re not going to buy a neighborhood to put these facilities in.”

Others dispute his notion that LID necessarily requires additional land.

Addressing a widely held belief among experts and government officials that engineers in general and departments of transportation in particular have been less than embracing of LID, Harley said: “They get stuck in the box that they grew up in.

“It’s hard for me to say DOT is pushing the envelope. DOT is not trying to change the rules. We’re trying to live by them as they change under us.”

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain called state adoption of LID “an evolutionary process.”

“Changes in stormwater permits, even if they’re not ironclad requirements, are still important,” he said. “As are changing zoning regulations to allow for no curbs.”

Experts and officials also point out LID’s broader impact from more natural surroundings – which means more things like trees – which in turn have environmental benefits – which in turn attract more people. Green infrastructure they call it.

Groups like the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association view that as a jobs stimulator. Kevin Sullivan, owner of Chestnut Hill Nursery and a board member of CNLA, said his group has been working with state officials to make it part of the LID economic equation.

“The buzzword of green infrastructure is important to us. We actually create it; we grow it,” he said. But, pointing again at engineers, he said there’s a “disconnect.

“It’s at times frustrating.”

Leah Schmalz of Save the Sound, a program of the advocacy group Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said using LID to clean water infused with everything from lawn fertilizer to street pollutants can help improve the livelihoods of fishermen and others who make their livings from Long Island Sound.

She noted the financial obstacle in Connecticut where no city or town has a stormwater authority, as do communities in other states, allowing them to levy user fees to help fund LID projects. Three stormwater authority pilot projects in New Haven, Norwalk and New London, authorized by state enabling legislation, have so far failed to materialize.

“I do believe there needs to be a an overarching coordinated effort,” Schmalz said of state involvement, but stopping short of faulting its limited and delayed efforts.

“Is it ideal to be doing a few pilot projects and calling it quits? No,” she said. “Is it good to have pilot projects to gather information for long-term strategy? Yes.”

From that standpoint, the upshot of the Farmington watershed project is mixed. Avon used its share in the money to make zoning regulations flexible enough to include LID as part of plan to reshape downtown.

“Rather than mandating LID, our conversation has always sort of been eliminating the barrier to it,” said John McCahill, Avon’s planning and community development specialist.

Torrington used its funds to take a more forceful route, making LID the default mode for subdivision development and exploring concepts like shared parking to cut down on the need for lots.

“Whether this would have happened without state funding? I don’t think so,” said Barbieri echoing the sentiment of other communities. And she noted it was fun during tropical storm Irene to watch the water disappear in locations where LID measures were in place.

“If Irene wasn’t a good test,” she said. “I don’t know what is.”