The federal government has been stepping up efforts to strengthen U.S. stormwater regulations in recent months, and local governments are finding themselves knee-deep in paperwork and bracing for the added costs that new requirements could bring.

"[The new regulations] require more and more resources on the part of the permittees at a time when municipalities have less money, not more," says Ken MacKenzie, manager of the master planning program for the Urban Drainage and Flood Control District in the Denver metro area. The district spends $200,000 to $300,000 a year on stormwater quality criteria, research and compliance assistance, but officials worry those costs could rise significantly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently initiated a rulemaking process to strengthen its stormwater regulations to better protect water quality. Through the process, the EPA will update its cost analysis of municipal stormwater programs, although agency officials say it is too early to say what that cost will be, who will be affected and when the rules will take effect.

In August, the EPA sent a letter to select cites and counties requesting information on the type of stormwater permits they have and their program components, standards and practices. In Colorado, nine local governments received the information request, and there are civil, and even criminal, penalties for not responding within 60 days, MacKenzie says.

The rulemaking process is among a host of changes EPA has in store for its stormwater program. In Florida, the EPA in October will adopt its first grouping of numeric nutrient criteria to measure the pollutants in stormwater runoff, says Kurt Spitzer, executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association.

Historically, Florida has used a narrative standard to gauge pollution levels, meaning stormwater officials would make sure water bodies had an appropriate number of insects, plants and other attributes instead of quantifying pollutant levels, Spitzer says. "It's nearly impossible to develop numeric criteria that can account for all of the naturally occurring variations in water bodies throughout a state the size of Florida," Spitzer says.

City and county governments in Florida spend about $1 billion a year to comply with existing stormwater regulations, Spitzer says. Florida officials worry that if the local governments are forced to rely solely on the numeric criteria, it will cost them an additional $75 billion to $100 billion in capital expenses over 10 years, he says. "When you have costs of that magnitude, we need to be very confident of the underlying science that says it's really necessary that we have to undertake this measure," Spitzer says.

Autumn Giusti is a New Orleans-based freelance writer.

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