Rainwater-in-Context: An Interview with Paul Crabtree and Lisa Nisenson

CNU’s Erika Strauss recently interviewed Paul Crabtree and Lisa Nisenson, leaders of CNU’s Rainwater-in-Context Initiative, to catch up after CNU21 and hear what they have to say about the recent developments in the delayed EPA stormwater regulations.


Erika Strauss (ES): I know you’ve been working with the EPA to develop new stormwater regulations, which have been further delayed.  What is the status? 

Paul Crabtree and Lisa Nisenson (P&L): It is disappointing that the new rules have not been issued yet.  The Rainwater initiative has been working diligently with EPA to get the next generation of regulations that support better urbanism and water management at the same time.  We've been talking with EPA reps and environmental groups in Washington DC.  The proposed rule was to have been issued on June 10 under terms of a consent decree.  Some of the challenges with getting the rule out are opposition from Congress members and details on the financial impact.  We imagine EPA could issue a proposed rule at any time - they have put several years into developing the proposal to date.

(ES): Can you explain the shortcomings in the first rule and what types of improvements are needed? 

(P&L): The first rules, issued in 1999, basically inserted national stormwater rules into local codes and introduced new concepts like low impact development for many smaller and medium sized cities.  While this larger concept is still valid, one of the biggest shortcomings is that the rules did not apply until a municipality hit certain population thresholds.  One of the comments EPA received from cities and states was that developers gravitated towards areas with fewer regulations.  As such, the delayed rules were expected to level the playing field.

Another shortcoming is that using zoning codes to implement water regulations has resulted in lot-by-lot management.  Hence large lot subdivisions could check all the boxes and ignore larger impacts related to pattern and location. 

(ES): I think the connection between high-densities and stormwater is really important, what do you think are a few key Best Management Practices (BMPs) for all cities to employ?

(P&L): Water regulators need to study how innovators have taken control of parking.  For parking, as on-site parking excesses are reduced, market mechanisms, shared parking and “found” spaces have emerged.  The same has to happen for stormwater: shared stormwater BMPs, fees for stormwater handling, and “finding” water in otherwise underused city spaces.

(ES): How has CNU been influential?

(P&L):  CNU has enabled the Rainwater-in-Context (RIC) to be successful on a variety of platforms.  The support of CNU lead to RIC’s strong presence at StormCon, the publication of a variety of Stormwater Magazine articles, webinars and PechaKucha sessions from CNU20.  The initiative also aided in another of CNU’s initiatives, LEED in Neighborhood Development by playing an integral role in developing the crediting system for rainwater.  Individual initiative members have also developed and implementing numerous rainwater solutions, including a design that won the Charter award for Salon de Refuses. 

In addition, John Norquist has been building coalitions to develop a strong voice on water and cities.   In 2010, this coalition sent a letter to EPA listing both shortcomings and potential fixes.  EPA has been a great partner; they are under a lot of pressure on costs, regulatory scope and the issue of mandatory retrofits.  

(ES): How would you like to see CNU assist you in going the next step?

(P&L): First, we need members to get viral.  We will be developing kits soon on letter writing, blogging and local action. Second, we need to move forward as if a new rule never comes about.   There are opportunities to amplify elements of existing rules that are good for urbanism, but got overshadowed by the rush for Low Impact Designs (LID) for individual properties.  For example, a working guide that describes the economic benefits, design and maintenance of shared stormwater management in a planning area would be extremely valuable.  We will be developing a grant for this.

Practitioners in the field need a relief from the extreme regulatory over-burden.  Rules and manuals that are hundreds of pages long are simply ridiculous.  The focus for the working guide will be on good design versus regulations that stand in the way of what we are ultimately trying to achieve.

Finally, one of the things CNU does best is tie the elements of great placemaking together.  We need to cross train so the transportation people are talking rainwater while the rainwater people become more conversant on sizing rights of way.


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