By Gary Hengstler
There is something fascinating about watching rainfall—the way small streams form water works its way into the storm drainage pipes or surface channels to keep roads and other surfaces from flooding.
That drainage also creates the single biggest source of water pollution in the nation.
“Nationwide, stormwater is considered to be the biggest problem for water pollution—even more so than the industrial discharge,” says John Tucker, head of the biology, geology and environmental sciences department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“The Clean Water Act put into place a pretty good permitting system for the point sources coming from industrial sources, but until the 1990s, the stormwater point sources were pretty much unregulated.”
And, with an LL.M from Lewis and Clark’s school of law, he is in pretty good shape to offer such conclusions about federal and state laws and regulations as they affect city government.
He acknowledges that, when most Americans think of water pollution, their first thoughts go to industrial pollution. “I think that, with industrial pollution, we’ve done a pretty good job of reducing pollutants, and the water quality is much better that it was. Storm water pollution remains a challenge.”
Tucker and his colleagues at UTC are taking long hard looks at the water quality in Tennessee, not just for the safety of drinking water for humans but also for what it portends for the environment and long-range impacts on the animals and plants in and around the streams.
It isn’t the rainwater itself that is necessarily polluted, Tucker says. Storm water falls on surface land such as streets and parking lots, picking up oil, gas and any metals that come out of tailpipes.
Some of the other sources of pollution from stormwater comes from people who dump things in stormwater drains, such as used car oil. He adds that any sort of organic matter, such as feces from animals when people drop their dog’s waste into the culvert, also are pollutants.
A more recognized form is in rural areas where rain runoff carries animal waste, fertilizers and pesticides into rivers and lakes.
Also, the rainfall itself may be acidic from contact with air pollutants, such as nitric acid emissions, which can also be a problem. Acid rain may harm vegetation, building surfaces and aquatic organisms.
As department head, Tucker is less involved in research than he once was, but he has worked with both the state and the city of Chattanooga.
When Tennessee passed the Inter-basin Water Transfer Act that requires a permit before water is transferred between basins or watersheds, Tucker worked on projects related to water quality and the health of the state’s rivers.
He says Tennessee’s statute for such water transfers is pretty progressive.
“It’s an important issue, particularly now as Atlanta begins to look outside of Georgia for water,” he says. Taking a large volume of water out of the river means pollutants that are discharged become more concentrated and more likely to harm aquatic life and potentially humans.
That can also affect industries with permits to discharge wastewater. They are limited to the amount of discharge, but as the river volume decreases, concentration goes up.
More recently, Tucker worked with the city of Chattanooga in trying to respond to enforcement actions because of violations of several Clean Water Act permits. “In Chattanooga, we have two different types of systems that handle stormwater. One involves stormwater going into stormwater drains that then mixes with sewage in the sewage-collection system. That’s the combined sewage/stormwater system Chattanooga has had problems with.”
He explains that, once that effluent is collected, it is supposed to go to the sewage treatment plant that has a permit to discharge treated sewage from the sewage treatment plant into the river.
“When we had a lot of rain, the system could not handle the volume of effluent coming in through the system,” he says, “so there have been discharges of effluent into streams before it gets to the waste treatment plant. There also have been discharges at the site of the plant when the volume becomes greater than the plant can handle.”
He says the other issue for Chattanooga is a different system that collects only stormwater, which is channeled into certain points where it can then be discharged into the river under a separate permit. “We are also in violation of that permit, and that is the permit that I have been more heavily involved with.”
Tucker points with some pride to what he calls a “pretty progressive strategy that Chattanooga developed to control stormwater. Chattanooga reviewed its stormwater ordinance and developed incentives to encourage businesses to use more environmentally friendly methods of controlling stormwater.”
For example, instead of the usual use of culverts sending water to some underground system, alternatives are encouraged to have it go into some sort of detention system on the surface. The benefit is the natural vegetation will trap pollutants that can then be absorbed into the soil or taken up by plants. The water will eventually run down through the detention system, but it’s much cleaner.
Businesses and entities are charged a fee for stormwater that runs into culverts from their impervious surfaces. But, if businesses try to mitigate the runoff through “constructed wetlands or stormwater ponds” or other methods that reduce stormwater pollution, they can have their fees cut by up to 85 percent.
“Even on our campus, UTC generates storm water because you have rooftops and parking lots,” he says. “When you look at the parking lots, you may not realize that some lots include stormwater treatment. You have large gravel along the edges. Then they added plants to these gravel areas to slow water down and retain pollutants, including litter.
Creating vegetated ditches is another way to slow the water on its way to streams.”
Tucker says offering businesses an alternative approach with incentives is a better way than simply mandating policy. And economic concerns are always present in terms of governments’ budgeting priorities
“The Clean Water Act required permits for point sources,” Tucker explains, “but did not require permits for nonpoint sources, including stormwater. It was left up to states to deal with this problem, and in many states, they didn’t do a lot. Then in 1987, the act was amended to get cities like Chattanooga to begin to control stormwater. But, in the agricultural settings, there is still not much (regulation).”
Returning to what he sees as a big part of the challenge, Tucker says the issue of volume and quantity of water will soon be important to Tennessee. “In the West, there’s always been a shortage, and the conflicts over water caused the law to be developed in different ways—first come, first served.”
That is contrasted to the east, where water has been plentiful. Tucker points to Supreme Court decisions that allocate certain amounts of waters for each state in the Northeast, “but we haven’t had to face that type of thing. Now it is moving here.”
Tucker cites a long-running dispute on which he did legal research when he was in Florida. Georgia, Alabama and Florida argue over how much water each is entitled to from the water system that starts a little bit north of Atlanta with the Chattahoochee River, before flowing down the border of Alabama, into the panhandle of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay.
“That has ultimately resulted in a lawsuit from Alabama and Florida against Georgia because they were removing more water from the system to support the needs of Atlanta. There are economic and environmental implications to that.”
So these multi-faceted and entangled issues of water quality, environment and now increasingly the law have implications for Tennessee’s future. And they certainly have Tucker’s attention.