Rhode Island features plenty of natural splendor – among other things, we have more than 50% forest cover, sandy Atlantic beaches in south county, and of course Narragansett Bay. But we also have a lot of concrete. Rhode Island is the country’s second-most densely populated state, with 1,016 inhabitants per square mile. A byproduct of all these people is that 12% of Rhode Island – roughly 145 square miles – is covered with so-called impervious surfaces like concrete and asphalt.
Impervious surfaces cause environmental harms. They create “urban heat islands” by absorbing and storing heat from the sun. They exacerbate flooding. And they lead to polluted stormwater runoff – when heavy rain falls on parking lots and driveways, it collects all the nasty stuff that has accumulated on the ground and carries it, unfiltered and untreated, into Narragansett Bay (along with raw sewage from overflowing sewage treatment systems). The result is unhealthy water.
For years, CLF has been exploring different ways we can use existing laws to address stormwater runoff. We’ve developed an innovative approach to expanding the scope of Clean Water Act permitting programs (read our press release or this post from the Environmental Law Prof Blog for more details). And, here in Rhode Island, we have just released a report detailing how cities and towns can use a decade-old state law to address the problems of impervious cover and stormwater runoff.
Our report focuses on the Rhode Island Stormwater Management and Utility District Act of 2002, which allows cities and towns to work independently or together to create Stormwater Management Districts. Under the Act, Stormwater Management Districts may charge fees to “each contributor of runoff” so long as any fee is proportionate to the amount of runoff from a given property.
Stormwater fees serve three major purposes. First, they allow Stormwater Management Districts to undertake pollution abatement projects, attacking the stormwater pollution problem head-on. Second, they create incentives for property owners to reduce their footprint of impervious cover –in fact, the Act even allows credits for property owners who undertake more ambitious projects like collection basins or filtration structures on their property. And third, they stimulate local economies by encouraging property owners to tear out concrete and replace it with plants or other permeable cover. The end result is less pavement, more green space, and less pollution in Narragansett Bay – all good things.
Although Rhode Island’s Act has been on the books for over ten years now, no city or town has yet taken the leap of creating a Stormwater Management District. In producing our report, CLF worked closely with Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Bays, Rivers, and Watersheds Coordination Team to identify questions that municipal leaders might have. Our analysis suggests that there are no significant legal obstacles standing in their way: now is the right time for cities and towns to work together to create Stormwater Management Districts and begin greening the Narragansett Bay watershed. We look forward to working with local governments and other advocacy groups in the coming days to make this happen.