When it rains, the regulations pour

New, costly rules; shift to ‘meet these standards or else’

[caption id="attachment_28378" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Before and after pictures of a recent home project in Marin County by Oak Grove Construction show $400,000 in upgrades needed to control erosion under the new storm water standards."][/caption]

CALIFORNIA – Engineers and contractors are scrambling to incorporate significant new changes to rules for managing storm water runoff during and after construction amid above-average rainfall this season.

"The days of building year-round -- if it got wet letting the ground dry out and if there was mud in the street cleaning it up later -- those days are gone," said Doug Hamilton, president of general engineering contractor Oak Grove Construction.

On July 1, a major update to the state's General Construction Storm Water Permit took effect. Different from the last major update in 1999, owners of construction sites now are responsible for meeting numerical targets for runoff content; monitoring and reporting on conditions and activities before, during and after rainstorms; and leaving erosion conditions after construction equivalent to those before.

“It’s a really big shift from ‘do your best,’ to ‘meet these standards or else,’” said Hugh Linn, P.E., president of Napa-based engineering firm Riechers Spence & Associates.

Clients have been asking how much it would cost to implement the new rules, particularly for monitoring and reporting on larger projects.

“We found that it would cost tens of thousands of dollars per project, based on 2009-2010 rain events,” he said.

That includes not only creation of Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans, or SWPPs, which has been required since the 1999 version of the rules, but also creation of a Rain Event Action Plan for each rain event.

Because of steeper slopes, easily erodible soils and thousands of miles of protected habitat for fish, projects in the North Coast tend to fall in the higher of the three new levels of erosion risk for projects. The higher the risk, the higher the requirements for preventing, monitoring and reporting the content of runoff for pH, turbidity, suspended sediment and certain pollutants.

The rain plan has to be in place and put into action within 48 hours of a storm, given a National Weather Service forecast of 50 percent chance of rain at a job site. That action includes preparing erosion-control measures and preparing to test samples of runoff water at intervals during the storm.

These plans must now be prepared and implemented under certification. The California Storm Water Quality Association is offering courses, and the regional water boards provide testing. Plan preparers, called qualified SWPP developers, or QSDs, tend to be engineers, geologists, hydrologists, landscape architects and certified erosion-control inspectors and professionals. Qualified SWPP practitioners, or QSPs, tend to be contractors.

A change in the new rules requires all compliance documents to be filed electronically and available on a state website. Projects spanning several rain seasons have to submit other reports annually.

The new rules also apply to trenching and cabling jobs, called linear underground or overhead projects. Those have been bread-and-butter jobs for earthwork contractors during rainy months, because erosion on such jobs hadn't had as much scrutiny, according to Mr. Hamilton.

Regional water quality control boards can levy fines for exceeding the new runoff thresholds, starting at $10,000 plus $10 per gallon per day. Actions taken to court could have penalties of $25,000 a day.

The post-construction storm water standards in the new rules also codify a jelling regulatory movement in recent years called low-impact development, or LID. Though implemented on recent projects such as pervious pavement in the Lowe's Home Improvement parking lot in Cotati and vegetation-covered roofs on projects such as h2hotel in Healdsburg, the largest project with significant LID features is the new Sutter Health hospital under construction next to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, according to John Short, chief engineer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

For more information, contact the North Coast water board at 707-576-2220, the Bay water board at 510-622-2300 or visit the state storm water permit page at

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