It's not one of those sexy topics that attracts a lot of attention. That is until it rains.
For the past eight years, state officials have been working on revisions to the state's sediment and stormwater regulations. The final draft has been published and regulations are scheduled to go into effect in 2014.
Meetings of a statewide advisory committee began Oct. 16, 2007, and continued for another six years, but without Sussex County government input. Although invited to be a voting member of the committee, a county representative attended only one of the nine committee meetings. That was planner Rick Kautz, who retired as county planner in May 2009.
The meeting day was even changed from Tuesday – when county council meets – to Thursday to better accommodate Sussex County.
“No one has ever talked about it on council,” said Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, adding she learned about the committee just before the final meeting. “Drainage and stormwater are such big problems in Sussex County, and council won't adopt a drainage code.”
Deaver said she other council members were taken on a tour hosted by Sussex Conservation District of poor drainage and flooding areas in Sussex County after a prolonged rainy period. She said she was shocked by the extent of the problem. “But other council members looked at it and didn't see it. I was told that we can't hold people's hands,” she said.
According to an email sent to Deaver from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, a letter was sent to former Sussex Administrator Dave Baker Sept. 10, 2007, requesting participation of a key Sussex County staff member on the stormwater committee. A month later, Baker responded that the meeting day conflicted with council meetings.
No one from Sussex County attended the first two meetings in October 2007 and January 2008. A second letter was sent to the county noting the meeting day had been changed.
In February 2008, a representative of Sussex Planning and Zoning Commission was appointed to the committee, but no one attended the seven meetings following the appointment. Jessica Watson of the Sussex Conservation District attended most of the meetings as a voting member. Since 1991, the Sussex Conservation District has served as the agency in Sussex County for the administration of Delaware's sediment and stormwater regulations.
“That's not working because the district has no county law to enforce,” Deaver said.
Deaver said a county planner could have attended the meetings, but that position has been vacant for nearly four years.
The councilwoman said she is confounded to come up with a reason why county officials did not emphasize the importance of having a voice in the revised regulations. “What gives Sussex County so much confidence that it doesn't do what the other counties do when it comes to interactions with the state? And why does the state let us get away with it?” she asked.
“It's something I don't understand. There is a smokescreen put up in front of me so I'm kept in the dark. I can't be shut out like this,” Deaver said.
Plan required to reduce runoff, volume
DNREC has developed standards and specifications for more than 40 different best-management practice options for managing stormwater to achieve runoff reduction and to mitigate volume increases in larger storms.
The threshold for requiring development of a sediment and stormwater management plan remains at 5,000 square feet of land disturbance. The revised regulations require builders to manage stormwater runoff during construction and post construction to reduce runoff rates, water volume and pollutants.
Builders must follow an established protocol within the regulations to develop a plan that must be approved by Sussex Conservation District before any earth can be disturbed. State and federal projects must be approved by DNREC.
Contractors must complete a training program and oversee the implementation of the plan. If a project covers more than 20 acres, a certified construction reviewer is required to perform weekly reviews of the installation of a stormwater management system. The weekly review can be modified according to the scope of the project.
The proposed regulations provide several revisions particularly with regard to post-construction stormwater management, said DNREC engineer Elaine Webb.
Webb said current efforts to ensure runoff after development takes place is not working to protect streams and manage flood waters as intended. The goal of the revised regulations will be to maximize infiltration, recharge and reuse of stormwater generated by new and re-development sites to achieve runoff reduction for more frequent storms instead of major, less frequent storms.
In addition, the owners of stormwater management systems will have to demonstrate that the larger storm events' runoff from sites can be carried by the downstream stormwater system while causing no adverse impact to other areas.
Agricultural lands, lots less than 5,000 square feet and commercial forest operations are exempt from the revised regulations.
According to the revised regulations: “Stormwater management designs shall reduce runoff, mimic natural watershed hydrologic processes, and cause no adverse impact to property. This shall be accomplished by treating runoff at the source, disconnecting impervious surfaces, preserving or enhancing natural flow paths and vegetative cover, conserving or enhancing natural open spaces and riparian areas, and other measures that simulate natural watershed hydrologic processes.”
An operation and maintenance plan is also required.
No drainage code in Sussex County
In Sussex County, home builders on single-family lots can construct homes at higher elevations than neighboring properties and homeowners can even point their downspouts away from their own property to drain on their neighbors – and it's not against any regulations on the books.
It's nothing new because it's been that way since homes have been built in the county. It's become more evident as more homes have been built over the past decade.
“In many developments, it's the first house in that gets the flooding,” said Jessica Watson, manager of the Sussex Conservation District's sediment and stormwater program. “No one is looking at a master drainage plan. We need a drainage code for enforcement.”
Watson said her agency can come after the fact and provide technical assistance to aid homeowners, but there is nothing in county code requiring grade calculations when submitting plans for a county building permit. Even the state has no drainage regulations.
It's also not usual to find houses built in sumps, or basins, where stormwater runoff naturally accumulates. “Some of these houses are lower than the roads. People just don't know when they buy a house,” Watson said.
With home construction on the rise again, Watson said contractors are doing their own thing without any regard for overall grading within developments. “The question is who is responsible?” she asked.