New stormwater regulations mean more paperwork, potential expense

When the Lycoming County commissioners approved a new county staff position in July, it was to address a controversial, but necessary, federal mandate: new regulations for managing stormwater runoff in communities that are part of the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems program, or MS4.

“The systems that we are talking about are primarily the series of stormwater inlets … culverts and man-made swales,” said John Bickhart, engineering services manager for the Lycoming County Water and Sewer Authority.

The stormwater management coordinator position, the creation of which was required to be approved by the county, will address the stricter guidelines for managing stormwater runoff into the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The regulations are part of the Chesapeake Bay Pollution Reduction Plan, which is aimed at reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment associated with existing stormwater discharge. The plan stems from Chesapeake 2000, a program intended to guide restoration of the bay’s waters through 2010.

Under direction from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued permitting guidelines for municipalities in 2002. It almost immediately met with delays in implementation and received extensions. The last of the extensions expired in June 2013, and the EPA now is coming down hard on enforcement.

“Due to the focused enforcement, there is a certain amount of time and effort that will need to be directed toward this program,” said Christine Weigle, executive director of the Lycoming County Water and Sewer Authority. “Each system will be evaluating the permit requirements and determining if there are any additional steps that they need to take.”

To that end, seven local municipalities – Williamsport, Montoursville and Old Lycoming, Lycoming, Loyalsock, Hepburn and Fairfield townships – and Pennsylvania College of Technology recently came together to form an MS4 Coalition. They hope to enlist the help of a specialist in interpreting and meeting guidelines, keeping track of paperwork and ensuring compliance between the state and federal levels.

The county itself isn’t responsible for any enforcement or paperwork, but the regulations have had a cool reception at best in Lycoming County, with many local officials seeing them as government overreach.

“This is a further degradation of taxpayers’ disposable income,” said Tony Mussare, county commissioner.

Mussare, in a sentiment echoed by commissioners Jeff Wheeland and Ernie Larson, said he believes the stricter regulations will result in higher costs to county residents, and pointed to how the cost will be reflected on a participating municipality. Loyalsock Township, for instance, paid $10,000 toward the position’s salary.

Mussare also is concerned that the financial impact of the regulations will become too much of a burden, coming on the heels of new wastewater treatment guidelines – also part of Chesapeake 2000 – that required many municipalities to perform expensive upgrades to treatment plants, in addition to the need for the county to address extensive road and bridge work.

“I’m asking you (the EPA and DEP) to postpone any additional regulations you have planned for us in the near future,” Mussare said in a July statement.

Cost could be a legitimate concern, according to Bickhart.

As one of six new minimum control measures required by the regulations, a municipality’s system that is determined to be the cause the discharge of sediments and “materials judged to be pollution” could be required to be replaced, he said.

In addition, there has been indication that municipalities might be responsible for systems within developments or on private property, “even if there is no public ownership or public easement or right-of-way,” he said.

The costs of managing the program should not be outside of the funds normally set aside for repairing, replacing and/or improving storm sewer systems, Bickhart said, but “the costs to encourage property owners or developers to make needed repairs … associated with acquiring a public easement could be very significant to a municipal budget.”

However, Bickhart and Weigle both cautioned that it’s premature to speculate on what kind of financial impact the program will have.

“It’s too early to predict the costs and requirements for compliance for the storm water systems,” Weigle said.

Megan Lehman, county department of Planning and Community Development environmental planner, said that the good news is that the MS4 program doesn’t necessarily hold the same potential for increasing costs as other regulations.

“I don’t know that there is a next step, as the MS4 program exclusively deals with stormwater,” she said. “Unlike wastewater systems, we are not looking at a capital upgrade that is ever completed – the MS4 program deals mostly with non-capital-infrastructure activities, such as mapping, maintenance, monitoring and public education.”