By Gerry Donohue. Until recently, federal storm water regulations focused on big projects and big metropolitan areas; starting in March, the regulations will apply to parcels as small as one acre and to any municipality in an urban area that has a separate storm sewer system. For many builders and developers, these and related regulations have meant coming to grips with a new set of site planning issues, and inevitably, new costs. However, as early adopters are discovering, the trick to managing storm water is really about navigating the regulatory environment and paying closer attention to construction site preparation.

Storm water management is itself a fluid science. The regulations and best management practices (BMPs) change frequently and substantially. During the past 30 years, the state of the art has evolved from storm water pipes big enough to drive a truck through to storm water filters small enough to trap a speck of dirt. In the early 1990s, the standard of measurement in many states was the 100-year flood; today, it is the one-year rain event. Now, new federal guidelines restricting water discharge are bound to put big builders -- with their wide range of construction activity, from infill sites with a half-dozen homes to master planned communities with several thousand homes -- increasingly in the regulator's crosshairs.

"The Environmental Protection Agency recently published an alert stating that it is focusing its enforcement efforts on large construction sites discharging storm water without a permit and on construction sites that hold a permit but do not comply with permit requirements," says Leah Wood, environmental counsel at the Associated General Contractors of America. Wood says fines for noncompliance can reach $27,500 per day for each day of violation.

In most states, the EPA sets the regulatory guidelines and leaves it to the states to write the regulations; federal regulations apply in nine states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. State regulations may be more stringent than the federal guidelines. Additionally, state land conservation districts, local agencies, city zoning authorities, and counties can have their own storm water discharge requirements.

"There isn't a consensus within the environmental and scientific community about which methods work best," says Roberta Marshall, vice president of community development at Irvine Community Development Company, in Newport Beach, Calif.

Developing land and building homes within this regulatory jigsaw puzzle can be challenging. But the examples of three builders offer at least a partial guide to successfully dealing with regulatory powers as well as managing the flow of storm water.

Belts and Suspenders

Located along one of the most pristine stretches of California coastline, the 9,300-acre Newport Coast is the crown jewel in The Irvine Company's collection. It features multi-million homes with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, because of its location, it is the focus of numerous regulatory and interest groups who want to make sure that The Irvine Company doesn't degrade the environment.

In Crystal Cove, a 681-acre luxury home community in the middle of the Newport Coast, Irvine Community Development Company has worked with regulatory groups to create a state-of-the-art storm water management system that treats 95 percent of the commercial and residential runoff from the first "flush" (3/4-inch rainfall) and diverts 100 percent of dry weather "nuisance" runoff from two creeks on the property to the Orange County Sanitation System.

"We created a series of redundancies in our program," says Marshall. "If a measure was cost effective, we incorporated it into our design, even if we didn't need to."

In total, the developer has implemented 15 man-made and natural systems to maintain water quality and manage storm water discharge. These processes include:

  • Sweeping streets and parking lots frequently to prevent contaminants from entering urban runoff.
  • Using special storm drain filters that remove 96 percent of contaminants and debris from runoff. A company contracted by the Homeowners' Association checks the filters once a week and cleans and replaces them as necessary.
  • Creating or enhancing 4,000 liner feet of waterway habitat lined with vegetation, as well as new wetlands, to provide runoff detention and filtration.
  • Utilizing an existing agricultural reservoir and several water quality detention basins to hold and treat the first flush of rainfall for up to 40 hours, allowing the sediment to settle to the bottom before the water drains out.
  • Adding stone and concrete obstructions to drainage channels to reduce the speed of runoff slows.
  • Educating homeowners about sound water quality practices.
  • "Because we were working with so many agencies and groups, we decided to take this belt-and-suspenders approach," says Marshall. "It's a truly comprehensive approach to storm water management."

Consensus Building

After years of research and consensus building, the Maryland State Storm Water Management Committee developed a set of new regulations in 1997. These regulations dramatically changed the criteria for storm water management, focusing more on handling normal flow than protecting against floods. They also instituted a series of incentives for builders who used natural measures to manage storm water flow. Before putting the regulations into effect, however, the committee wanted to test them out.

Joe Necker, who is vice president and director of engineering for The Rouse Company, in Columbia, Md., was the only housing industry representative on the committee. Because of his understanding of the new regulations and his company's wide ranging activities in Maryland, he volunteered one of the company's projects as a test site.

"We analyzed the old regulations and the new regulations and it looked to us like the new ones worked," says Necker. "There was less use of land, primarily because the storm water facilities didn't have to be as large, so overall we felt they would be a benefit, or at worst neutral."

The Rouse Company's Emerson project was selected as the test site. The 500-acre mixed-use community is next to Interstate 95 about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Necker and his team worked closely with both state and county regulators for several months to reach a shared understanding about the reach and intent of the new regulations. At times, it was difficult because they were working with new rules. At the same time, says Necker, there was a climate of teamwork and trust because of their united efforts.

The Rouse Company used several storm water BMPs in the project. Where topography allowed, the company directed overland flows into natural areas rather than onto streets. The company also built several swales to capture and naturally filter runoff.

Within the design considerations, the company designated large open space areas and left other areas in their natural state. These "natural" BMPs allowed The Rouse Company to claim credits that it used to decrease the volume size of several retention ponds.

Based on their shared experience of implementing the draft rules, Necker says the state regulators were willing to alter some of the rules prior to final approval. For example, the soil type at Emerson doesn't recharge water at the rate specified in the plans. So the state added an option that under such circumstances some of the recharge volume can be placed in retention ponds.

"Involvement in these committees is time consuming," says Necker. "But it is well worth it. With all the different sides talking through how the proposals are going to work, you craft regulations that work better for everyone."

Baffling Requirements

The Pacific Group had a choice between following the letter of the storm water regulations and meeting their intent. The company was developing an environmentally sensitive piece of land on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, north of Atlanta. Given the slope of the land and the proximity to the river, the developer faced a difficult task keeping sediment from flowing into the Chattahoochee. And according to the state regulations, the company didn't have to keep the sediment out of the river; it just had to try.

"Standard BMPs would have met the regulation but our Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU) count would have been well above 25," says Harold Cunliffe, a partner in the Pacific Group. NTUs measure water's muddiness. Sediment flow into rivers falls under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which mandates that the turbidity -- or degree of muddiness -- of the water cannot top 25 NTUs. "In Georgia, the NPDES Permit sets NTUs as a standard but we are not obligated to meet them -- just employ BMPs."

The Pacific Group decided to take an extra step to protect the river. Working with Applied Polymer Systems, The Pacific Group developed a baffle grid system to filter out the particles and silt from construction runoff before it reached the Chattahoochee River.

Located downstream from the site, the baffle grid system consisted of a series of cells constructed out of standard 2x4 lumber wrapped in coconut fabric and treated with polyacrylamide. As muddy water flowed off the site and through the baffles, the polyacrylamide caused the sediment to cling together and sink to the bottom of the cells. The entire system cost about $700.

Measurements of the turbidity of the water show the remarkable impact of the baffle system. Measurements on six separate days showed that the water flowing into the top of the baffles had an average turbidity of more than 2000 NTUs. Water flowing out of the bottom of the baffle system, however, had an average turbidity of less than 18 NTUs, well within the federal guidelines.

"Without that baffle system, we would have produced NTU counts above 1,000 in the runoff going into the river," says Cunliffe.

The Pacific Group has used the baffle system on four other projects and enjoyed similar results. Cunliffe says that the baffle system doesn't work on every site. Factors such as soil type and topography determine how successful the system can be. However, on the appropriate site, the baffle system can dramatically reduce the amount of sediment in the storm water flow from a construction site.

While the array of storm water management regulations builders will ultimately need to address is only beginning to come to light, one thing appears increasingly clear: In most instances, it pays to be prepared ahead of the storm.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.