Confronting the Runoff from New Storm-Water Rules

//February 24, 2006

Confronting the Runoff from New Storm-Water Rules

//February 24, 2006

Starting in April, engineering firms must find new ways to cope with increased complexity in regulations regarding drainageSpotlight-Engineering

Engineering companies and commercial real estate developers will be awash in new state regulations when additional rules on storm-water management kick in this April. While such firms will see their costs jump as they begin complying with increased regulation, proponents say the strict controls will pay off in the long run by reducing flooding and water pollution.

Engineers will have to devise ways to decontaminate surface storm water and ensure its absorption into the ground as they draw up plans for commercial construction projects. The rules, which the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) modeled in part after the Federal Clean Water Act, will affect new developments of one acre or larger and increases of a quarter-acre or more made to impervious surfaces like parking lots. Residential developments of one acre or more have faced similar standards since 2004.

Projects following the regulations will cost engineering companies about “10% to 15% more time and money” than before, says Tony DiLodovico, vice president of Schoor DePalma, an engineering and consulting firm based in Manalapan. “But ultimately those costs get passed onto the consumer. That’s America.”

Ernie Feist, owner of Monroe-based Feist Engineering agrees, saying it takes him 25% longer than it did five years ago to design a system that complies with the new regulations. But “[the new rules have] created business opportunities for firms like mine that do civil and municipal engineering,” Feist says. “It has created a new source of revenue.”

But that extra cash is a result of the job having become harder. “There is a great deal of creativity involved in trying to accomplish what the regulations set out to do,” Feist says.

The rules come in two parts, both of which are intended to keep the state’s aquifers—from which underground water can be tapped for drinking and other uses—both filled and uncontaminated.

Under natural conditions, these subterranean sources would be replenished as water is absorbed by the ground and works it way down to the layers of permeable rock, sand or gravel where it can collect. But the spread of development has paved over much of the state’s absorbent surface. Rather than sinking into the ground, water runs off to the nearest stream carrying whatever pollutants it picks up along the way, or sits in man-made water-detention basins until it evaporates or overflows.

Now, says Feist, redesigned basins will allow collected water to percolate through sandy bottoms into the aquifers, reducing the chances of overflow and flooding.

Another part of the regulations seeks to cut down on contamination caused by existing construction. It requires the adoption of ordinances that mandate street and surface cleaning and the cleanup of existing water-catchment basins.

In addition to building more complex drainage systems, DiLodovico says engineers face confusion over whether or not their work on any particular site fulfills the new rules. A real estate company that has agreed to rent or sell a property at a certain price could lose money if “hidden costs” were to arise due to the DEP enforcing what he calls “subjective requirements” after a project is finished.

To make things clearer, a committee of representatives from various state agencies and professional groups such as the Association of Environmental Authorities of New Jersey is developing a standardized assessment tool for these projects, he says.

Despite some bumps at the beginning, “The regs are good for the environment,” says DiLodovico. “Making sure there’s enough clean water is a positive thing for everyone.”

Feist agrees, saying, “When you do the right thing environmentally, people are more accepting of development; which is good for business.”

It is an issue of economics and nature, says George Hawkins, executive director of NJ Future, a Trenton-based research and policy advocacy group that pushed for the changes. In addition to the need for clean drinking water, Hawkins says, “A large amount of recreation and tourism is negatively impacted when water flowing through trout streams and parks is polluted. Lack of clean water is something you quantify when you don’t have it. There’s no reason to not focus on it intently; it could hit a crisis level because of the great demand and questionable supply.”

The only downside to the new rules, he says, is that they’re too focused on new development. “New Jersey has a lot of buildings that have been around for a while,” says Hawkins. “But that’s something for the next step.”

Staff Writer Victoria Hurley-Schubert contributed to this story.

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