Chesapeake Bay Needs Speedy Confirmation of EPA Administrator
Penny Wise and Bay Foolish

Small Town Solving a Big Problem

The little town of Ashland, Va., is trying to do its part to reduce pollution going to the Chesapeake Bay -- by building a better parking lot.

Last month, the town celebrated the completion of a new municipal parking lot with a ribbon cutting, dignitaries, and speeches. As the local newspaper, the Herald-Progress, said, “Call it a watershed moment.”

That’s because the town went the extra mile and spent the extra dollar to create a “soft,” low-impact parking lot that absorbs water and pollution rather than allowing them to run off hard pavement and into nearby Stony Run, a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

P1010006The runoff of rain and snow in cities and towns is among the most serious pollution problems plaguing the Chesapeake Bay and its many streams and rivers. The rain and snow aren’t the problem – it’s the dirt, fertilizers, oil, and grease that get washed off the land and dumped into nearby waterways. The culprit isn’t Mother Nature; it’s man and our inattentiveness to the impacts we have on the natural world.

Reducing urban runoff pollution is among the key goals of Virginia’s Bay Clean Water Blueprint, the state’s plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. To help address the issue, policymakers have developed new state regulations that localities must follow, and scientists continue to develop Best Management Practices – techniques and tools that slow, capture, and treat runoff before it can harm local waterways. (For a good list of such practices, their costs, efficiencies, and practicalities, check out this new report prepared by the James River Association and the Center for Watershed Protection.)

Ashland officials, aware that runoff pollutes streams and floods local streets and faced with complying DSC_0004 with new runoff regulations, opted to kill several birds with a stone – actually a whole bunch of stones. Pervious paving stones.

Rather than repave the town parking lot with traditional asphalt, the town opted to cover half the lot with permeable pavers (half the lot because that’s as much as could currently be afforded). The pavers (above) have small gaps between them that allow water to soak into the ground naturally and collect in the soil and gravel beneath the lot. The lot also is bordered by a bio-retention basin, a large earthen ditch filled with compost, sand, soil, and plants that soak up additional water and pollution.

DSC_0005According to Town Engineer Ingrid Stenbjorn (left in photo), the pavers and the retention basin can store up to 12,200 cubic feet of rain water, or 100 percent of the water and pollution that would run off after a typical 1-inch rainfall. An informational sign posted by the lot says the pavers and the bio-retention basin will remove, among other pollutants, 85 percent of the dirt particles, 60-70 percent of the phosphorus pollution, and 43 percent of the nitrogen pollution in the runoff.

The low-impact parking lot cost Ashland $200,000, which is much more expensive than traditional asphalt paving. But that initial cost figure is deceptive, as it doesn’t account for the many benefits the town expects to realize from the project, including reduced flooding, cooler temperatures in surrounding buildings, healthier streams, and a more beautiful cityscape. And, of course, the project allows the town to get ahead of the curve in complying with the new state and federal runoff reductions aimed at restoring the Bay and local waterways.

That’s why the low-impact lot had the support of town planning and public works officials, the town manager, mayor, and Town Council.

“We knew more and more that we’d have to account for [regulatory obligations] every year, and this seemed like a really good way to accomplish that and some nice economic development goals, and then DSC_0010 I think everybody was 100 percent on board,” Mayor Faye Prichard told the Herald-Progress.

Ashland has other low-impact projects in the works to reduce runoff, Stenbjorn said. The town is resurfacing 550 linear feet of a neighborhood street with permeable pavers and installing a bio-retention basin there. And it will soon begin a new streetscaping project along several blocks of Railroad Avenue, the town’s iconic main street (above photo), that will include similar runoff-reducing features.

All of this good work caught the attention of the Virginia Lakes and Watersheds Association, which presented the town with its 2013 Dave Pearson Watershed Excellence Award.

“We were thrilled, we were so happy,” Stenbjorn told the Herald-Progress. “We felt like we had really done a cutting-edge project, and we felt like it was really the right thing to do as far as being good environmental stewards. And it just really feels good to know that we weren’t the only ones that thought that.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation agrees and salutes the town for its innovative, effective, low-impact solutions to one of the Bay’s more difficult problems.

Chuck Epes

Chesapeake Bay Foundation


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