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New stormwater rules statewide cause debate

A storm is brewing over proposed changes to how stormwater is handled by cities and towns, with municipal leaders organizing a group protest and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment arguing for even stronger rules to reduce pollutants getting into lakes, rivers, streams and Long Island Sound.

In the middle of the debate is the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which proposed the changes to improve the quality of water being discharged from roads, parking lots and catch basins into the state's waterways. A public hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday at DEEP headquarters in Hartford is expected to draw a large group of speakers on all sides of the issue.

To call attention to the issue in advance of the hearing, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities will host a news conference at 10:30 a.m. today in Cromwell. Fifty town leaders are expected to join CCM spokesmen in opposing the regulations as a "new huge unfunded state mandate," and will call on DEEP to reject the draft changes and start over. The proposed changes would be made to the General Permit cities and towns are issued for a variety of activities that result in discharges of stormwater into waterways.

CCM plans to release a survey that will show the changes would burden cities and towns statewide with a total of $100 million in new costs, said Kevin Maloney, CCM spokesman.

East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica is among local leaders planning to attend the CCM event. An analysis by Town Engineer Victor Benni showed that complying with new regulations would cost the town $230,000 annually, plus additional expenses for new equipment that may have to be purchased, Formica said. Complying with the current stormwater permit costs the town about $100,000 annually, he said.

He said DEEP should have worked with towns as it developed the proposed regulations, and conducted pilot tests of the effectiveness of the changes, rather than revising the regulations on its own then presenting them to the towns.

"I would have preferred we have the conversations first," said Formica, who is the newly elected state senator from the 20th District and will be sworn in Jan. 7, 2015.

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said the regulations, which are being changed to comply with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, are needed to improve the health of the state's waterways. More than half of the rivers, streams and lakes monitored by DEEP are not clean enough to support recreation and fishing, primarily because of polluted runoff.

"Water carried into rivers and streams from stormwater can contain significant levels of contaminants and is a major reason for poor water quality in many of this state's water bodies," he said. The Environmental Protection Agency "is pushing states to address this issue and it is time that we do so."

DEEP is, however, aware of the towns' concerns and will revise the proposed regulations after Wednesday's hearing "so that the final requirements put in place strike a good balance between the needs of our municipalities and the important environmental objectives we are trying to achieve," Schain said.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said the new rules would require even rural towns to conduct townwide leaf collections, monthly street sweeping, hire consultants to certify stormwater management plans and develop public education and outreach materials to foster better behavior among residents regarding use of pesticides, fertilizers and other substances that end up in stormwater. In addition, towns would have to clean and inspect catch basins more frequently, develop expensive measures for stormwater from construction sites and comply with new, extensive reporting requirements, she said.

"The proposed General Permit is a prime example of regulations run amok," she said. "They need to go back to the drawing board and work with towns as partners in improving water quality."

Gara said DEEP should do a thorough review of the 10 years worth of data it has compiled on how the towns are complying with the current General Permits before crafting new regulations. In addition, she said, EPA is not requiring increased stormwater regulations for small, rural towns.

"One of the biggest issues is that they have exceeded the requirements of federal law," she said.

Lyme, which has hundreds of acres of protected forestland, is a prime example of the kind of town where the regulations are unnecessary, First Selectman Ralph Eno said.

"We have very few impervious surfaces, no curbing. We're not a town that generates a lot of stormwater runoff," he said.

Schain said that while towns with low population density do not fall under the federal requirements, "we believe it is important to extend improved stormwater management practices to them ... to improve the condition of the many impaired water bodies in rural areas and protect the condition of others."

Roger Reynolds, legal director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, said his group is challenging DEEP to enact even stricter stormwater regulations that would include provisions to verify that towns are complying.

"We have a problem with nitrogen getting into Long Island Sound, and a lot of bacteria impairment in unhealthy waterways, and unswimmable beaches," he said. "We also have a phosphorous problem in our lakes and rivers that's causing algae blooms. Stormwater is the driving force of these pollutants."

The federal Clean Water Act, he said, requires states to enact rules that would "reduce pollutants to the maximum extent possible."

Costs of compliance, he said, cannot be considered until its is established that the Clean Water Act standards are being met. He added that the costs of compliance should not be borne by towns and increased property taxes, but through the creation of stormwater utilities that would charge the sources of stormwater by the amount of pavement or other criteria.

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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