Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Dec. 1, 2021

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In Our View: Stormwater Ruling Smart

High court right to stress importance of clean water rules in development permits

The Columbian

In the realm of regulatory minutiae, stormwater holds a special place in Washington. Yet while the issue is a perpetual political football with the sides drawn along ideological lines, the most pertinent fact is that environmental concerns do not exist in a bubble.

Just as air pollution inevitably wafts outside of the region where it was created, stormwater can have a far-reaching impact. Stormwater is a leading cause of water pollution, with runoff collecting pollutants such as oil, pesticides, or fertilizers and eventually carrying them to large waterways, where they can be detrimental to marine life. For a state that understands the interconnectivity of ecological issues, this is disconcerting. Because of that, a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court regarding stormwater regulations was reasonable under the law and beneficial to the public.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled last month that developers who had sought permits for projects before new clean water rules took effect in July 2015 are beholden to those new rules if they have not yet broken ground. This ruling overturned an appeals court decision handed down earlier in 2016.

Developers, led by the Building Industry Association of Clark County, argued that the new rules would lead to increased costs and extended delays for planned projects. But Justice Debra Stephens wrote in the decision that, “Developers don’t have a vested right to discharge polluted stormwater in violation of state and federal water pollution laws.”

That is the bottom line, although frustration on the part of developers is understandable. If a project already was planned and permits already had been sought, it is maddening to have to change horses in midstream — so to speak. But the more pertinent issue is that all projects yet to break ground should be subject to the same rules. And if those rules lean toward the side of environmental protection, that lends them even greater weight.

The difficulty of the issue can be seen in the back-and-forth of regulatory rulings and court decisions. The state Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that projects could not be grandfathered in to avoid the clean water rules; the appeals court overturned that decision; and the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court ruling. The fact is that if a development needs to reassess its handling of stormwater, that presents a short-term problem and short-term costs; but if a development is completed with inadequate stormwater provisions, that development will have a negative environmental impact for years.

Meanwhile, Clark County is reassessing its stormwater management plan and is seeking input from the public. Comments may be submitted to before Jan. 31. As county officials are aware, ignoring clean water regulations can be costly. In 2013, Clark County reached a settlement with environmental groups to pay $3.2 million over six years for its previous snubbing of such regulations.

That speaks to the importance of stormwater plans throughout the state, and it speaks to the importance of the recent Supreme Court decision. It can be difficult to weigh the needs of developers and the costs of regulations against the needs of the public and the benefits of those regulations. But regulating the control of stormwater runoff and protecting large waterways that serve all Washingtonians is a necessity for the continued health of our state. Allowing some developments to violate those rules would be damaging to us all.