Stormwater effort shifts to high gear

The city of Oak Harbor’s new Environmental Educator Maribeth Crandell has been hitting the streets — and painting the pavement — to educate the public about stormwater pollution.

Since receiving a permit in February for new stormwater regulations, the city has been making headway in implementing an exhaustive system that includes runoff control for all development and construction sites, and illicit discharge detection and elimination.

The federal government, through the state Department of Ecology, required for the first time earlier this year that Oak Harbor and other similarly-sized cities obtain permits for stormwater systems.

Steve Bebee, Oak Harbor Public Works field supervisor, updated the City Council at a recent Tuesday Puget Sound Partnership workshop on program progress thus far.

“This has been a big project,” he said. “At this time I believe we’re on track. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but I think we’ve got a lot of work behind us too.”

The program is designed to reduce the amount of pollutants in Puget Sound by preventing them from running into storm drains and catch basins. Further requirements for the city include public education and outreach, as well as public involvement and participation.

Enter Crandell, whose message is simple.

“Pet waste, car wash soap, motor oil, erosion, fertilizers and pesticides accumulate in storm water runoff,” she said, “which goes untreated directly into the bay. It’s important to remember that ‘only rain goes down the storm drain.’”

From planning “low impact development” public workshops to be held in conjunction with local organizations, to placing children’s books about the adverse effects of runoff in school libraries, doctor and dentist offices, Crandell can empathize with the plight of Sisyphus. Undaunted, she recently recruited members of the high school’s ecology club to help paint cautionary stenciling near catch basins.

“I told the kids we’re going to tattoo the streets,” she said. “They were eager to help and were just looking for a project.”

The budding street tattoo artists are only the beginning. The public is also needed to help place markers by storm drains and assist in developing the stormwater management plan.

“Public involvement is crucial,” Bebee said.

Information dissemination is a euphemism for what Crandell, who is being paid $3,280 a month, has accomplished since joining the city staff. But the burden is not solely hers. Bebee showed the City Council the four, 30-second informational commercials currently running on Channel 10 and on the city’s Web site.

Even a seemingly benign action like washing a car is a potential pollutant. In a community rife with fundraisers, Crandell highlighted the importance of ensuring that car washes are environmentally friendly. Car wash kits — designed to keep soap, grease and grit from entering the storm drain — are available at the Oak Harbor Public Works office to use free of charge.

“We really want to get the word out,” Crandell said. “It’s very important.”

“We’re trying to prevent as much of the soapy water from going in to the catch basins as possible,” Bebee added.

A $75,000 grant from the Department of Ecology has helped the city kick-start the program, but the money is only a drop in the bucket.

“What it boils down to is controlling and eliminating stormwater pollutants,” said City Engineer Eric Johnston after the workshop. “That money doesn’t go very far.”

The remainder of the money needed to meet the requirements for what the engineer called an “unfunded mandate” will be made up with storm water utility fees.

The new regulations represent the gradual implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act, Johnston said. In 1987, Congress updated the act to include stormwater discharges in the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit program.

About 15 years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency said that cities like Seattle with populations greater than 100,000 had to obtain “Phase I” permits.

Now, under Phase II rules, cities and counties with populations greater than 1,000 people per square mile must obtain permits.

The major sources of pollution in stormwater include oil and coolants from cars, fertilizers and pesticides from lawns and gardens, bacteria from pet waste and failing septic systems, soaps from car washes, and all kinds of accidental spills.

Although the city has four years — the life of the permit — to turn in a completed plan, it must have a mechanism in place by February to comply with the minimum requirements.

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