Madison, WI February 28, 2014—On Tuesday February 25 the Fitchburg (Dane County, WI) City Council approved plans to expand sewer and water service to just over 900 acres of open space in the uplands south-east of Madison and overlooking Lake Waubesa wetlands. The purpose of the expansion of city services to the Northeast Neighborhood is to make possible the construction of up to 1,570 new homes, offices, and stores. The Fitchburg City Council also approved a separate proposal for a 257-acre housing project in the Stoner Prairie Neighborhood.
The project proposal to expand the city’s urban services to an area in near to the Lake Waubesa wetlands area met with still opposition from Fitchburg residents—over 600 signed petitions against the extension—who questioned the need for the rapid expansion because, they reminded city officials, the urban service area still has 1,125 vacant acres set aside in other parts of the city. Fitchburg is a rapidly expanding, and was up until recently a largely rural city-suburb of Madison, WI, the state capitol. Fitchburg’s population has grown from about 17,000 in 1990 to an estimated 28,895 in 2012, a 58% increase.
Will We Ever Learn From Our Mistakes?
This is an old story. Humans have been transforming the Earth’s landscape—and recently the atmosphere—for millennia, building cities, roads, houses, farms, and factories to meet the human need for food, fiber, and shelter. Human activities such as these have built great civilizations, cultures, and centers of learning—most of which have come and gone, being both the beneficiary and victim of human success and excess.
In the process of civilization-building humans have degraded the world’s ecosystems through habitat fragmentation, over exploitation of resources (timber, fisheries, soil), alteration of surface and groundwater flows, and an unceasing and escalating introduction of natural and synthetic chemical pollutants into the air, land, and water. This suite of human activities has damaged, destroyed, or extinguished many of the Earth’s parts and processes. We humans persist in these follies because we think we can get away with them, or engineer solutions that mitigate our mistakes–until we learn we can’t engineer our way out of trouble. Then we repeat it all over again and again. And so it continues with projects such as those proposed by–and for–Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
But there is good scientific evidence and opinion that should cause us to slow down and show caution in the way we use and abuse the air, land, and water. In 2005, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Project (MA) published a report evaluating the impacts of human activities on ecosystem services or products, such things as flood control, food and fiber production, and air and water quality. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report (MA 2005) said that “over the last 50 years humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period in human history largely to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber, and fuel.” (MA, 2005). The report went on to predict that the degradation of the world’s ecosystems could become even worse in the next 50 years.
More Approvals Required
The next steps for the “Northeast Neighborhood” proposal are an examination by the Capital Area Regional Planning Commission (CARPC). If CARPC approves the project, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WIDNR) will then consider final approval if it determines that water quality (both ground and surface) will be protected.
The well-meaning, earnest, and civic-minded people who propose, endorse, and promote projects such as Fitchburg’s Northeast Neighborhood project, call them “developments”. But is development the right word to describe the full range of beneficial and detrimental impacts from the project? “Development” in the dictionary sense has these synonyms: gain, rise, advancement, improvement, progress, enlargement, addition, spread, growing. These descriptors are apt when you are talking about more houses, roads, and shops. But these societal advantages are often achieved at an ecological expense or disadvantage. In this and most other similar cases the disadvantages will flow to the open-space and ecosystems; to the air, land, and water that the new houses, shops, and businesses will damage, fragment, and pollute. It seems to me that a better descriptor of such urban expansion projects comes closer to something like: “reduction”, “decrease”, “lessening”, “habitat fragmentation”, or “ecosystem degradation.”
Unjustified Confidence in Stormwater Management Plans
Project proponents have expressed confidence in plans to reduce erosion and protect Lake Waubesa and its wetlands, citing plans for storm water retention basins and other erosion control measures that they say will reduce contaminants reaching the lake. Dane County Executive Joe Parisi questions the wisdom and need for the project and has expressed doubt about the Lake Waubesa protection efforts, in part because of the steep slopes on which the houses, roads, and shops would be built.
Dane County Executive Parisi is not alone in his skepticism of the ability of humans to contain the impacts of storm water runoff. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under provisions of the Clean Water Act regulates the Nation’s urban storm water runoff. Apparently, the EPA and its state designees are not doing such a hot job and there is room for improvement, according to The National Academy of Sciences.
In a report by the National Research Council entitled “Urban Stormwater Management in the United States” (NAS, 2008 report in brief) the Academy described the current situation in which rapid changes in urban and suburban land use alter how water flows on the land both during and following storm events, “putting higher volumes of water and more pollutants into the nation’s lakes rivers and estuaries.
The report found several problems with the way stormwater is regulated. For one, the Clean Water Act framework of regulating sewage and industrial waste is not well suited to regulating the complex problem of stormwater discharges. Further, stormwater is regulated late in the game because controls are reactive (rather than preventative) to each new land use change. Current stormwater management then aims to send runoff downhill as fast as possible. In an improved regulatory world stormwater would be “regulated through direct controls on land use and strict limits would be placed on the quantity and quality of runoff entering surface waters.”
In the full National Academy of Sciences Report the authors found other fundamental problems with the way stormwater runoff is regulated. For example:
1) “There is limited information available on effectiveness and longevity of many stormwater control measures, contributing to uncertainty of performance.”
2) “The EPA’s program has monitoring requirements that are so benign as to be of little use for purposes of program compliance.”
3) “Most dischargers have no measurable, enforceable requirements. Instead, the stormwater permits leave a great deal of discretion to the regulated community to set their own standards, develop their own pollution control schemes, and to self-monitor.”
The report comes to the conclusion that “ . . . the states’ implementation of the stormwater program, compliance with stormwater requirements, and the ability of states and EPA to incorporate stormwater permits with pollution limits are uniformly discouraging.”
The National Academy report made a some suggestions for improvements in the way we think about and plan for urban storm water runoff. These include improved urban design features that reduce runoff and increased use of “rain harvesting” systems that capture rainfall before it turns into “runoff”.
The report also called for “an entirely new permitting structure that would put authority and accountability for stormwater discharges at the municipal level” instead of at the state level and further stormwater should be regulated at the watershed wide level instead of the point source or end-of-pipe approach that is now used.
So, given the risks to our Dane County landscape and ecosystems and the uncertainties of the capacity of project proponents to reduce impacts, does Dane County or the world really need more pavement, parking, and roads for one more housing complex, strip mall, gas station, and convenience store? Probably not.
What will such a project add to the quality of life in Dane County? How will it enhance the quality of our air, land, and water? Not much, I’m guessing.
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well Being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Urban Stormwater Management in the United States. 2008 Prepublication Report, Report of the National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.D. www.nap.edu
Urban Stormwater Management in the United States. 2008. The National Academies Report in Brief. The National Academy of Sciences. Washington, D.C.