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Pollution rules hit water runoff
John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Posted 10/01/2002

New regulations requiring cities, farms, golf courses and construction sites to reduce polluted runoff will take effect in Wisconsin starting Tuesday, making the state a leader in what some experts say is the nation's biggest unsolved water pollution problem.

The new rules, developed by the state Department of Natural Resources, come 30 years to the month after Congress passed the 1972 Clean Water Act which significantly reduced and controlled pollution flowing from factories and municipal sewage treatment plants.

But the Clean Water Act didn't address pollution carried into lakes and rivers by rain and melting snow.

Pesticides, petroleum products, road salt, sediments, fer- tilizers and more are washing into our waterways almost daily -- not from any point in particular, but from broad areas -- from our yards, driveways, gutters, ditches, business roofs, parking lots, golf courses, streets and farms.

State and federal regulators now say those pollutants are the most pressing problems for our waters, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is requiring states to adopt new regulations to address the issue -- in essence requiring permits for runoff as the agency does for factory pollution and sewage treatment plants.

"These rules are absolutely necessary for Wisconsin to continue cleaning up our lakes and rivers and to protect the gains we've made," said DNR Secretary Darrell Bazzell.

Wisconsin's new rules, four years in the making, are regarded as the most comprehensive in the nation, according to Russ Rasmussen, who leads the DNR runoff management section.

The requirements for different groups phase in over time, but they all require Wisconsin residents to look at themselves as part of the problem -- and then clean it up.

"We're looking at the next year as a transition year to work out all the details of getting these rules operational," Rasmussen said. "We're working with other state agencies and local governments to clearly spell out the roles and procedures for implementing them and on educating our staff and those people who will be affected by the rules."

The city of Superior saw the new regulations coming two years ago when they hired Sean Hancock as the city's stormwater technical coordinator. Hancock is working to develop the city's stormwater plan so it can meet the state's permit requirements starting in March.

Public education will play a key role, Hancock said, with all municipalities required to remind residents that whatever they do to their yards, driveways and parking lots eventually ends up in Lake Superior.

"We all have an impact on the watershed we live in. The fertilizer on our yards, how we get rid of yard waste, what's going down our storm drains. Even how we wash our cars, all have an impact on the lake," Hancock said.

That means encouraging recycling of used pollutants such as motor oil and recycling or composting of yard waste. Even cutting back on litter can help because discarded paper and other materials carry pollutants into the lake.

The city will have to clean up its act, too. Instead of just sweeping streets, it may have to start vacuuming streets and parking lots to get them cleaner. Sand and dirt carry pollutants into waters every time it rains.

Under the new regulations, the city will have to reduce sediments in runoff by 20 percent within five years; 40 percent within 10 years.

Eventually, cities might have to build wetlands, ponds or catch basins to stop runoff, hold it and let the pollution settle before the water goes into creeks, rivers, the bay and Lake Superior.

Minnesota also is developing stormwater runoff regulations and permits to be in place by March, said Marnie Lonsdale, the city of Duluth's stormwater project coordinator. Duluth will be held to a higher standard than some areas because Lake Superior and local trout streams will carry higher protection levels.

"We're sitting on the best water in the world, and we have the challenge to protect it," Lonsdale said.

Sediments going into Lake Superior and water warmed on large blacktop parking lots running into trout streams are problems unique to the Northland, she said. And Duluth's steep hills add to the challenge.

"Look at Second Avenue East. Essentially, all the salt and sand poured on there washes right down into the bay at Minnesota Slip. But you can't stop salting it because it's such a heavily driven road. So what do we do?" Lonsdale said.

Minnesota's new stormwater permit regulations go into effect in March.

Wisconsin and Minnesota towns will have to monitor all of the places stormwater runs into creeks, lakes or streams to measure the difference in flow and pollution during wet and dry periods. That could be a problem for Duluth, which has nearly 3,000 such outfall points.

The city, Western Lake Superior Sanitary District and other organizations already have campaigns to encourage residents to recycle yard waste and keep used oil and other materials out of storm drains. There also have been programs to encourage residents to have pesticide-free lawns.

"It's going to take individuals as well as city action," Hancock said.

In rural areas in Wisconsin, county land conservation departments will take the lead in working with farmers to implement the rules. The state can't enforce the rules against small farming operations unless the state has provided at least 70 percent of the cost of the manure containment structure or other practice intended to reduce runoff.

Developers, builders or others that may be responsible for new development or redevelopment construction on sites of five acres or more must implement a plan that identifies practices designed to reduce 80 percent of the sediment load that runs off the site. This requirement also applies to construction of streets and roads in areas of new development or redevelopment, and, starting in March 2003, it applies to construction sites of one or more acres.

"These rules are absolutely necessary for Wisconsin to continue cleaning up our lakes and rivers and to protect the gains we've made."

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