Outside the snow is melting, sending at first rivulets and then torrents of meltwater flowing across Seattle's parking lots and streets and lawns, carrying transmission fluid and oil and pesticides and the rest of a pollution stew that is the most pervasive pollution threat to Puget Sound.
Today, in what the state Department of Ecology calls a historic step, the agency will issue new rules -- years after they were legally required -- designed to take steps toward controlling this pollution-laced concoction.
"We are here today to announce one of the most important steps that this agency has taken in many years to deal with a water quality problem that has been around for a long time -- but that hasn't been regulated or managed very well," Ecology Director Jay Manning said Tuesday in a news briefing. The new rules are embodied in water-quality permits to be issued today.
But even a state document admits that the new rules include "sometime insufficient measures" to control stormwater. Federal officials also have said the new rules aren't enough to save endangered salmon.
Citing scientific studies, environmentalists and Indian tribes stand poised to challenge the new requirements as too weak to rescue pollution-pounded Puget Sound.
Builders, too, are positioned to launch legal challenges, saying the state is going too far with new measures that could cost home buyers thousands of dollars per house. Municipal officials, meanwhile, fret that a requirement to control stormwater will discourage redevelopment in cities and spur urban sprawl.
Solving the problem will require major changes in the way cities are developed and rebuilt, say scientists who've studied the problem. But the new rules don't require any change in development patterns.
Instead they rely on cleaning up the water through various means. For example, builders might choose to build a system that runs water through a pond, allowing pollutants to settle out, then feeds the water onto a swale to soak into the ground. Cities also will have to inspect and clean out catch basins more frequently.
In a critique of this approach, many of the region's leading scientists studying stormwater said late last year that what is needed is a whole new form of low-impact development. In this system, the amount of pavement is minimized with features such as narrower roads and sidewalks, and the reduced amount of stormwater soaks into the ground instead of running off to scour out nearby stream banks.Public Employees for Environmental Protection called the rules package "staggering in its vagueness, (with a) ponderous timeline and low expectation for ... protection of our state's waters."
The new rules package covers only new development and redevelopment, and doesn't deal with existing properties, said Sue Joerger of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. "I can see why they'd want to ignore it, because (the cost of cleanup) boggles the mind to think about, but we've got to start in some small way."
That's what Ecology is seeking to do, Manning said. And Gov. Chris Gregoire included $26 million in her proposed state budget, half to help cities put the new rules into effect and half for demonstration projects of the low-impact development patterns experts recommend.
But low-impact development isn't mandated by the new rules.
"There's a whole bunch of momentum behind (low-impact development) and I think we can get most of what we want in (low-impact development) through incentives," Manning said. But by requiring it, "We would be biting off an even bigger controversy than we have."
Jodi Slavik, an attorney with the Building Industry Association of Washington, said the new state requirements, along with local requirements that will follow, "will impose dramatic costs on builders." Just coming up with plans and permit fees required by state and local governments, and hiring experts, she said, could run $9,000 per building lot on smaller projects.
Dave Williams of the Association of Washington Cities said local officials are particularly concerned with the requirement that a redevelopment project "would treat that already-paved, used land for stormwater purposes as if it was a virgin piece of land, prior to European development."
"We're concerned that the redevelopment standard could end up discouraging redevelopment in these cities and thwarting our attempts to do what the state is asking us to do through growth management, which is to redevelop and intensify the land use that's already in cities," Williams said.
For big cities such as Seattle, the new rules were supposed to be tightened by July 2000. For smaller cities, the announcement marks issuance of the first rules governing them. Those rules are four years overdue.
State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, a member of a group Gregoire appointed to spearhead Puget Sound restoration, said she would like to see the rules package clean up stormwater sooner but she agrees with the approach.
"It may not be as strong as hopefully it will get to, but we have to start somewhere," Appleton said. "If it were at its strongest, people would resist. ... Push-back isn't healthy."