Stemming the Flow of Stormwater Pollution

Watch | Go back to transcripts

Image of Florida DEP helped fund an experimental green roof at the University of Central Florida. Green roofs are emerging as important tools to minimize stormwater runoff from rooftops.
Florida DEP helped fund an experimental green roof at the University of Central Florida. Green roofs are emerging as important tools to minimize stormwater runoff from rooftops. Russell Sparkman

Video Transcript

Managing stormwater is an issue everywhere in Florida. As one of the rainiest states in the U.S., Florida's epic rainstorms wash polluting oils and chemicals from our roads and parking lots and fertilizers and pesticides from our yards and farms into our rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries and the aquifer - Florida's source of drinking water.

Marty Wanielista, University of Central Florida: Walk out here, you can almost immediately feel the difference. With a conventional roof... Hello! That was our first bird maybe! Our first bird's nest hopefully starting. Wasn't that nice that I was right next to the spot where she or he was making a spot for their young?"

Narrator: Marty Wanielista is on the green roof of the Student Union Building at the University of Central Florida. He's flushed a bird from a thriving patch of dune daisy, coral honeysuckle, muhly grass and other Florida native plants. The thick tangle of rooftop vegetation represents an innovative research project funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Marty Wanielista: We introduced green roofs to the state of Florida as a pollution control mechanism in 2002.

Narrator: Wanielista is the director of the university's Stormwater Academy and a leading authority on stormwater management. Stormwater -- the rain water that runs off our streets, roofs and yards -- is one of the biggest threats today to Florida's rivers, streams and lakes. Among the emerging solutions helping to stem the tide of pollution that contributes to the unhealthy greening of Florida's waterways: green roofs.

Marty Wanielista: The basic function of the roof is to collect stormwater and its pollutants, so that there is less discharge of that stormwater, and at a slower rate.

Narrator: There are important side benefits, too. Green roofs are much cooler than conventional roofs and that means less need for air conditioning. Also, a green roof looks nice with blooming native plants that attract nesting birds and butterflies. This "green" roof is being tested for its ability to manage stormwater. It holds at least half an inch of rainfall, which means it's effective during most storms. Of the 140 storms a year that collectively drop between 40 to 65 inches of rain on the sunshine state, the vast majority produce an inch of rainfall or less. Instead of running off the roof and eventually into waterways laden with all manner of pollutants, water is held here by this roof's soil and plants.

Marty Wanielista: This area right now represents pollution control, energy control, heat island control, and probably one of the more important ones in terms of global warming is that you're sequestering carbon dioxide from the environment and creating oxygen. So imagine if you did this everywhere?

Narrator: Managing stormwater is an issue everywhere in Florida. As one of the rainiest states in the U.S., Florida's epic rainstorms wash polluting oils and chemicals from our roads and parking lots and fertilizers and pesticides from our yards and farms into our rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries and the aquifer - Florida's source of drinking water.

Stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollutants that threaten water in Florida and stemming the flow of polluted stormwater is a task that challenges all communities says DEP's Eric Livingston.

Eric Livingston, Florida Department of Environmental Protection: We have too many green waters in this state. We have too much algae, too many aquatic weeds. And, that's caused by the nutrients, the nitrogen and the phosphorous that is found in stormwater runoff. And so, one of the things that we're currently working on is a dramatic improvement in Florida's stormwater rules that will rightly reassert the state of Florida as having the finest stormwater treatment program in the country.

Narrator: It was in 1982 that Florida first established stormwater rules.

Eric Livingston: When we first did our stormwater rule, understand it took two years, 29 official drafts, over a hundred public meetings. I mean, this is revolutionary. They're gonna what? They're going to make us get a permit and treat stormwater?

Narrator: Part of the reason people had trouble adapting to the new school of stormwater thought was because it bucked a long-entrenched attitude.

Eric Livingston: Florida was developed historically on a simple philosophy. Ditch it. Drain it. Get rid of that water. So, even today flood control, drainage is extremely important. But, it was this history of drainage in the state that's actually led to a lot of the problems that we have.

Narrator: The problems are widespread and range from Everglades-sized issues requiring billions of dollars and complex engineering to clean water, to smaller, more isolated problems like Lake Ella just north of the Capitol Building in Tallahassee. Once a natural lake and wetland, Lake Ella was consumed by urban development in the 1920s and 1930s and for decades bore the brunt of polluted stormwater runoff.

Eric Livingston: I mean, before, this was not a pretty place. Sometimes it smelled. There was trash. The water was nasty brown.

Narrator: The solution was the creation of the state's first stormwater pond that used a chemical called aluminum sulfate or "Alum" to removed pollutants from the water. Alum grabs hold of the phosphorus and other solids in the water and settles to the bottom where the pollutants can be removed. This same process is used to help purify drinking water worldwide.

Eric Livingston: The net effect of course is that all of the pollutants that used to come into Lake Ella, untreated from this surrounding area that was built before our stormwater treatment rules, when the lake discharged those pollutants used to go downstream to Lake Lafayette. All the pollutants that are coming into Lake Ella are being treated with alum injection, the pollutants are staying right here in the lake. They are in the sediments. The alum actually helps keep the sediments from allowing the pollutants to get out of the sediments be released and go downstream.

Narrator: Rebuilding and redesigning stormwater systems in urban areas like Tallahassee is costly but essential to improving water quality. Livingston says that DEP has pursued many such projects throughout the state.

Eric Livingston: Over the past 25 years we have done, in partnership with local governments and water management districts, an incredible array of stormwater retrofitting projects in the Tampa Bay watershed and Indian River Lagoon watershed

Narrator: One such project is in Cocoa Beach, a barrier island town sandwiched between the ocean and the Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in the North America.

Joanie Reagan, City of Cocoa Beach: See how the patches of pickeral weed have really done well. Hopefully that duck potato will fill in just as well.

Narrator: Joanie Reagan, program coordinator for Cocoa Beach's Stormwater Utility, is exploring Maritime Hammock Preserve, a five-and-a-half-acre restored park. The centerpiece is a one-acre pond. It intercepts stormwater, and alum is added, cleaning it of most pollutants before sending it on its way into the Indian River Lagoon.

Joanie Reagan: When it is discharged at this head wall it is already injected with alum. And so it will go into the deeps of the pond and the alum will help settle out all of the solids, which will be collected at the bottom of the pond.

Narrator: Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, Cocoa Beach's stormwater drains and pipes were designed to prevent flooding by moving stormwater as quickly as possible off of the land.

Today, with funding and technical support from DEP, Cocoa Beach is finding ways to reduce the flow of polluted stormwater in order to protect Indian River Lagoon. The cumulative effect of lots of small projects like this one is mighty, says Eric Livingston.

Eric Livingston: It is absolutely amazing how many thousands of acres of urban land in each of those two watersheds have now been retrofitted using stormwater retrofitting, like Lake Ella and Greenwood Urban wetland, and the incredible amount of load reduction that has resulted as a result of those projects.

Narrator: As optimistic as Livingston is about DEP's role in helping communities address stormwater pollution problems, he emphasizes that it's everyone's responsibility to ensure clean water for future generations.

Eric Livingston: Understand how your everyday activities do affect water quality and then take actions to reduce it. Whether it's making sure your septic tank is inspected and cleaned out on a regular basis, re-directing your roof runoff, picking up your pet waste, properly using fertilizers. All of these things contribute to pointless personal pollution. All of these things demand personal solutions and demand that all of us be part of the solution. This is not simply about regulation and about business and about other people. Don't point fingers. We're all part of the problem, we've all got to be part of the solution.

Related Links

DEP Stormwater Program

UCF Stormwater Management Academy