Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"WSU wades through stormwater standards"

I wonder what Chuck Pezeshki's reaction to this story from today's Moscow-Pullman Daily News will be? The "avid Wal-Mart groupie" (i.e. me) is not mentioned at all.
Uncertainties abound as to how state’s new permits apply to university’s campuses

Washington State University has roughly 100 acres of parking lots, roads, sidewalks and roof structures on its Pullman campus. Factor in its three branch campuses and research and extension facilities throughout the state, and WSU covers a lot of ground.

WSU’s statewide presence may cause headaches for university officials when it comes to enforcing strict stormwater management standards set by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

The department’s recently issued standards apply to the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff and are intended to reduce pollution and contamination of downstream waters. The city of Pullman was issued the Ecology permit Jan. 17 and WSU-Pullman acts as a secondary permittee, said David Duncan, an ecologist for the Department of Ecology’s Water Quality Program.

WSU is “most unique” as it pertains to the permit, Duncan said. For now, WSU’s many facilities all are classified as secondary permittees with the municipality in which they are located.

Duncan said it is uncertain if WSU’s facilities will remain a secondary permittee with municipalities or take on the role of co-permittee, which would allow the university to jointly apply for the permit with another applicant, such as a small city.

Secondary permittees must abide by codes set by primary permit holder, Duncan said. Permits were issued to 20 cities and eight counties in eastern Washington and 81 cities and five counties on the west side of the state.

Further complications stem from the fact that permits were issued based on region. Pullman was issued an eastern Washington permit, which took into account the region’s low precipitation levels, soil types, topography and threat of erosion.

Some WSU facilities may not have to comply with the permit because they do not meet population minimum requirements, but there still are many unanswered questions.

WSU officials admit the concept is frustrating, and they have decided to appeal the permit.

“This is fairly new,” WSU Director of Construction Services and Quality Assurance Keith Bloom said. “There’s a lot of information. Even the Department of Ecology is not clear about how all of this is going to come together. It’s very convoluted.”

WSU Environmental Health and Safety Director Dwight Hagihara agreed.

“We need to have a common understanding of what’s going on, even though it’s unclear at this time,” he said “We need to know are we in or out in each of our facilities?”

Bloom said talks have touched on the idea of consolidating the entire university system under one permit. The benefit to that would be cost-savings. The university would pay a single permit fee rather than one for every WSU facility throughout the state.

“That’s an option that we’re looking at, but it’s complicated,” he said.

Duncan said Ecology officials are actively discussing the matter with the university to iron out the details. WSU’s mandated notice of intent has been delayed until the group can figure out the logistics to make the permit work on all of the university’s campuses. Workshops will be scheduled to create an open dialogue between Department of Ecology ecologists, municipalities and the public during the educational phase of the five-year permit.

“The answer isn’t simple,” Duncan said. “Ecology is trying to work with them until they figure it out.”

Area officials argue that the Palouse landscape does not fit the confines of the permit. The Pullman City Council recently voted to join a handful of other cities in the Association of Washington Cities to appeal the permit to the state’s water pollution control board.

Pullman City Supervisor John Sherman has said Pullman should not be included because the area’s unique topography, soil types and clay levels make permit compliance difficult.

WSU is appealing independently for similar reasons, said Bloom, who also is a city councilman. He noted that for the last four years WSU has enforced stormwater management tools in all new development as “good practice.”

“We have a lot of room for improvement. No one’s saying we’ve perfected our technique (for cleaning stormwater), not from the city’s standpoint or the university’s,” he said. “We know what the problem is, but we can’t get our arms around the solution because the issue is hard. We’ve got lawyers, we’ve got engineers, we’ve got environmentalists, and we’re all sitting around saying what do we do?”

Municipalities, such as Pullman, have been offered grants to fund some of the costs of implementing the permits. Entities such as WSU are not eligible for the same grants. Bloom said preliminary cost estimates to meet the requirements of the permit on the Pullman campus could be as high as $1 million. The money would pay for additional employees, equipment and infrastructure needed to meet permit requirements.

“While we’re being directed to do this, there’s no money coming in to do this,” Bloom said.

Hagihara said because the process is new, the university intends to work closely with Ecology until the complex permit language is understood.

Working jointly is the “best way to implement the permit until we hear about the appeal,” he said. “We’re all trying to learn about this.”

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