Who Will Stop the Rain?

As it stands, God is responsible for anything beyond two inches of stormwater runoff

Every time it rains hard around Annapolis, all hell breaks loose. Mud goes streaming into a creek or streams. Citizen watchdogs start barking. They call the mayor’s office and complain that dirt is running off this or that property, usually a development site.
    State law requires developers to control the first inch of rain that falls on their property during a 24-hour period. Expensive control measures are required so that no sediment leaves the site.
    The Maryland Department of Environment is responsible for enforcing this law. What this used to mean around Annapolis was that one inspector, Chris W., who is a very diligent guy, was responsible for inspecting a huge area that included not only the city but also Anne Arundel County.
    That translates into hundreds of construction sites all tearing up the ground at the same time. One lone inspector cannot do the job. Chris is lucky if he can get to each site every two weeks, in which time it might rain four or five times. A lot of dirt goes unnoticed, except, of course, by the folks who happen to live near a development project.
    It used to be that when people called Annapolis to complain about dirt running into their local creek, they were told to call the Maryland Department of Environment in Baltimore. It was, after all, the state’s problem.
    But nobody was happy. Citizens felt they were getting the run around, and city staff were getting yelled at for not enforcing a law over which they had no authority.
    Former Mayor Ellen Moyer, a champion of the environment, eventually asked the state if Annapolis could assume authority for inspecting construction sites. After about a year of wrangling, the state handed over inspection duties to the city. Annapolis is one of the few jurisdictions that no longer leaves its problems to someone else to fix.
    That’s where I come in. I’ve been doing environmental work for the City of Annapolis for 16 years, eight with Moyer.
    I’ve seen a lot, but working for Mayor Josh Cohen as a part-time erosion and sediment inspector has been an eye-opening experience. The city has two inspectors. Yet at any given time, we have around 60 active projects, from small additions on a house to the building of the new Germantown Elementary School. We visit each small site at least once every two weeks and the big jobs weekly.
    After fighting for stricter stormwater laws as a member of the Severn River Association and helping strengthen city stormwater policies, I figured I knew the score. I was mistaken. Current regulations are often woefully inadequate to control urban stormwater runoff.
    Last fall, we had more than six inches of rainfall in one day. Nowadays it is not uncommon to have gully washers in the two- to three-inch range at least once a month. Yes, our weather is changing.
    But our laws aren’t.
    No matter how much it rains, developers are responsible for managing only the first inch. All the inches after that are essentially acts of god.
    Engineering plans are drawn up based on controlling one inch. Silt fences can handle only about two.
    Developers make an honest effort to do what’s right. They don’t want bad publicity or to kill the Bay. They really don’t want inspectors shutting down their jobs whenever there’s a bad storm.
    Everyone is doing their job and following the law, but the creeks turn brown and people always assume the worst.
    It’s raining today.    
    Of all the million pinpricks killing the Bay, in a city like Annapolis the biggest culprit is what runs into our storm drains every time it rains.
    Who will stop the rain?
    Either we change the law — or else point the finger at the real culprit, Mother Nature.