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  • View in gallery

    Graph of the number of extreme precipitation events (over 50 mm in 24 h) per year in New York State. The figure was created from daily cooperative network precipitation data from 46 stations and was obtained from the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

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    (a) Map of New York State showing the location of Tompkins County (gray). (b) Map of Tompkins County.

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    Land use and land cover in Tompkins County in 2000.

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Improving Policy for Stormwater Management: Implications for Climate Change Adaptation

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  • 1 Northeast Regional Climate Center, New York State Water Resources Institute, and Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
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Abstract

Lack of local information on climate change impacts is increasingly recognized as an important barrier to progress in adaptation. However, simply providing decision makers with higher-resolution climate information will not ensure successful adaptation. In order for there to be appropriate information uptake and use, it is essential to understand the political constraints and conditions under which decision makers operate. A detailed examination of the current regulatory context in relation to climate and weather impacts can provide insight into the barriers and obstacles affecting decision makers in adaptation endeavors.

This study examines the experiences of the municipalities of Tompkins County, New York, as they attempt to manage stormwater in compliance with federally mandated regulations. The current policies fail to adequately address the fundamental problems affecting local government in New York: fragmented jurisdiction, interagency communication, inability to cope with unfunded mandates, enforcement, and the promotion of informed decision making. The way forward may be the adaptive governance approach for the management of complex environmental issues. This article is intended to serve as an initial model for other university-based researchers that are interested in serving their local communities with weather, climate, and policy research and are willing to engage in the complexities involved.

Corresponding author address: Lee Tryhorn, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, Cornell University, 1121 Bradfield Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. Email: lee.tryhorn@cornell.edu

Abstract

Lack of local information on climate change impacts is increasingly recognized as an important barrier to progress in adaptation. However, simply providing decision makers with higher-resolution climate information will not ensure successful adaptation. In order for there to be appropriate information uptake and use, it is essential to understand the political constraints and conditions under which decision makers operate. A detailed examination of the current regulatory context in relation to climate and weather impacts can provide insight into the barriers and obstacles affecting decision makers in adaptation endeavors.

This study examines the experiences of the municipalities of Tompkins County, New York, as they attempt to manage stormwater in compliance with federally mandated regulations. The current policies fail to adequately address the fundamental problems affecting local government in New York: fragmented jurisdiction, interagency communication, inability to cope with unfunded mandates, enforcement, and the promotion of informed decision making. The way forward may be the adaptive governance approach for the management of complex environmental issues. This article is intended to serve as an initial model for other university-based researchers that are interested in serving their local communities with weather, climate, and policy research and are willing to engage in the complexities involved.

Corresponding author address: Lee Tryhorn, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, Cornell University, 1121 Bradfield Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. Email: lee.tryhorn@cornell.edu

1. Introduction

Some river! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,” Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly. “He decays.”

—Time Magazine, 1 August 1969.

On 22 June 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire. This event drew great attention from across the United States and helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities in the early 1970s resulting in the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Despite nationwide efforts to improve water quality since then, thousands of water bodies in the United States remain classified as impaired.1 Polluted stormwater runoff is a leading cause of this impairment (see additional data online at http://www.epa.gov/nps/facts/point1.htm). In New York State alone, stormwater contributes to impairment of 766 miles of streams and rivers, 157 square miles of lakes and reservoirs, and 247 square miles of estuaries (DEC 2000).

Stormwater runoff is also a major culprit in urban flooding and changes to the precipitation regime are intensifying this problem. Increases in the frequency and magnitude of extreme rainfall events have been documented in New York State (Fig. 1). These changes are among the largest seen within the United States (DeGaetano 2009). Climate change projections suggest that these increases will continue (Frumhoff et al. 2007). Changes in land use are also likely to be a major contributor to difficulties in stormwater management, potentially even more so than climate. In combination, these changes to the hydrological cycle will bring great challenges to communities and may exacerbate many existing water issues, as storm drains and waste management systems require more system capacity and technological sophistication to avoid being overwhelmed. These changes bring into question whether past management practices will remain effective in the future.

To provide practical solutions and advice, it is essential for scientists to understand the context and political constraints that decision makers operate under. Accordingly, this research is part of an ongoing effort to gain insight into the obstacles affecting decision making at the local level. This study examines the experiences of the municipalities of Tompkins County, New York (Fig. 2), as they attempt to manage stormwater in compliance with phase II of the national stormwater management program. This study aims to describe the interactions between the State and local governments and the effectiveness of current stormwater management regulations. More broadly, this research endeavors to contribute to more informed decision making at the local level in regard to weather events and climate change and in turn create a better understanding of the barriers to adaptation efforts at the local level. An examination of these issues is needed now to ensure that New York is poised to address the impacts of climate change that will exacerbate ongoing environmental challenges within the State. There is a growing movement in New York toward mainstreaming climate change into all areas of decision making, which is why a climate change lens has been used for this case study.

Within the theoretical framework of the policy sciences (see section 2a for a more detailed description; Lasswell 1971), this research is grounded by information obtained from 16 interviews conducted in New York State in 2008. Various members of the following organizations were consulted: the municipalities of Tompkins County, the Tompkins County Stormwater Coalition, Cornell University, the New York State Water Resources Institute, the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Hudson River Estuary Program, Division of Water, and Climate Change Office. Their occupations ranged from environmental and civil engineers to watershed coordinators, town planners, and hydrologists. Extreme precipitation events and their associated impacts, such as stormwater runoff and flooding, were used as a boundary object2 to interact with participants (Lynch et al. 2008). Topics discussed in the interviews included the participants’ experiences in dealing with the current stormwater regulations, what they considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the program, suggestions for improving the program, their perceptions of climate vulnerability, how they factor climate information into decision making, and nonclimatic factors that influence their decision making.

Section 2 of this paper gives background on adapting to climate change and characteristics of adaptive capacity. The analytical framework used in this study is also described. Section 3 describes the local government structure within New York State and the concept of adaptive governance. Section 4 gives a description of the current stormwater regulations in New York State. Section 5 discusses the major issues for stormwater management in New York: water quality standards, funding, aging infrastructure, the creation of appropriate local laws, and the differences between urban and rural municipalities. Section 6 offers possible alternatives to improve the current situation, such as managing water issues on a regional basis or using a networking strategy, and section 7 contains concluding comments.

2. Adapting to climate change at the local level

Adaptation to climate change refers to changes in policies and practices that may enhance resilience and reduce vulnerability to changes in climate and the weather patterns. It may occur in physical, ecological, and human systems and involves changes in both social and environmental processes. Adaptive capacity is defined as the ability of a system to adjust its characteristics or behavior to expand its coping range to respond successfully to climate variability and change. This includes the resources available for adaptation as well as the ability of the system to use these resources effectively toward adaptation. Adaptive capacity may be aided or constrained by factors both inside and outside the community (e.g., social and ecological reasons, cost, state or national regulations, etc.) Social capital is a key component (Brooks and Adger 2005), including the relationships between community members, participation in decision making processes (Moore and Koontz 2003), and the presence of leadership that is willing to advance adaptation objectives (Lowe et al. 2009). It is also important to recognize that minimizing the impacts of climate change is only one of a community’s interests and it must compete for limited time and funds (Dowlatabadi 1995). Formulation of effective climate change policy responses will involve the integration of scientific information with all of these factors. Because of this, an integrated holistic approach may be able to assist in providing appropriate information on which to base sound policies. This is why case studies, such as the one presented in this article, can be a useful learning tool.

a. The policy sciences framework

The intellectual framework chosen for this research was taken from the policy sciences (Lasswell 1971). The policy sciences are an approach to understanding and solving problems. Helping people make better decisions is the overarching goal. The policy sciences provide an integrated and comprehensive set of procedures for addressing problems at different scales (local, national, international) in ways that help to clarify and secure the common interest. The principle of contextuality is a central component of the policy sciences: “If modern historical and social scientific inquiry has underlined any lesson, it is that the significance of any detail depends upon its linkages to the context of which it is a part” (Lasswell et al. 1952, p. 11). More recently this idea has been incorporated into creating sound policies for adaptation to climate change by adapting policies to the context at hand (Lynch and Brunner 2007). For readability, the conceptual framework has not been highlighted explicitly in this paper. More information can be found in Lynch et al. (2008) and Lasswell (1971). The framework has been used to organize and integrate data and to develop policy alternatives.

3. The institutional context

For most people, local government is the most salient political actor. Local government will also be the first responders to the impacts of climate change and will play a critical role in reducing communities’ vulnerability to climate change. New York’s local government structure is fairly complex. Currently, there are 1605 local governments, including 932 towns, 554 villages, and 62 cities (Office of the New York State Comptroller 2006).3 These municipal governments have been granted broad home rule powers by the State government enabling them to provide services and regulate within their jurisdictions.

The area chosen for this case study, Tompkins County, is in the west central part of New York State (Fig. 2a). In 2006, the population was estimated to be 100 407 (data available online at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/36000.html). The county comprises 15 very diverse municipalities (Fig. 2b). In general, the residents of Tompkins County have a higher income and are better educated than the U.S. average (Table 1). Within the county, the City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca4 are the most urbanized and well resourced of the municipalities, whereas the surrounding municipalities tend to be more rural (Fig. 3). These two municipalities contain the majority of the students associated with Cornell University and Ithaca College. As a consequence their median ages are low and the population is well educated. The rural municipalities, such as Newfield, Enfield, and Groton, tend to have older populations and lower incomes.

b. Adaptive governance

Future changes in demographics, land use, and economic development will have a significant influence on how changes in climate and weather impact a region. To meet the challenges of adaptation, community decision makers will need flexibility to utilize the adaptation measures most appropriate for their local situations. A hierarchical, top-down style of policy formulation and implementation, analogous to the stormwater regulations presented in this article, is unlikely to be sufficiently flexible in the face of climate change. Policy design needs to be sensitive to context. The limitations of established structures of governance have already seen the rise of community-based initiatives and the emergence of adaptive governance. Adaptive governance provides policy-makers with an alternative framework. Adaptive governance requires the adaptation of policy decisions to experience on the ground and employs continuous learning by doing to field-test policy responses and make adjustments. A more detailed description of adaptive governance can be found in Brunner et al. (2005).

4. Stormwater phase II in New York State

a. What is stormwater?

Stormwater is defined as the proportion of precipitation or snowmelt that is not retained in the soil. As it flows across various surfaces, stormwater collects and transports soil, animal waste, salt, pesticides, fertilizers, oil, grease, debris, and other pollutants (Horner et al. 1994). Traditional management approaches such as gutters, curbs, and drains may exacerbate the stormwater problem by channeling water from sites. Polluted runoff is then discharged, often untreated, directly into water bodies. This pollution can result in the deterioration of fish, wildlife, and aquatic life habitats; losses in the aesthetic and recreational value of water bodies; and threats to public health.

b. At the national level

In the United States, the EPA is charged with regulating stormwater. Originally, the national stormwater regulations were aimed at point source pollution. In 1987, the regulations were broadened to include nonpoint sources, such as municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s). The inclusions of nonpoint sources resulted in a two-phased national program of stormwater controls at the local level. From 1991, phase I addressed stormwater runoff from larger populations, construction activities that disturb over five acres, and industrial discharges. More recently, phase II has been implemented. Phase II is targeted at urban areas with populations below 100 000 and smaller construction sites. Whether or not a municipality is required to comply with the regulations is based on how densely populated it is.

c. At the state level

Within New York, the DEC is responsible for administering the stormwater management program. Phase II rules came into effect in 2003. Under the program, MS4s are required to implement a Storm Water Management Program (SWMP). The SWMPs must encompass six minimum control measures: 1) public education and outreach, 2) public involvement/participation, 3) illicit discharge detection and elimination, 4) construction site stormwater runoff control, 5) postconstruction stormwater management, and 6) pollution prevention.

d. The new MS4 regulations

The first five years (2003–08) was a trial period for the municipalities to develop their own stormwater programs. New regulations for the municipalities became effective across the state from 1 May 2008. Complaints about the new regulations from various groups and individuals across the state have centered on the issue of an increased burden on already overworked, underfunded local governments. The new regulations give the bulk of responsibility for the assessment, evaluation, and enforcement of the program to the municipalities. The new requirements included expanded mapping requirements, inspections at construction sites, compulsory training, and inventories of sites under construction and postconstruction. Many of these requirements necessitated enacting or amending local laws, at additional cost to municipalities.

5. The current situation: Complicating factors

The following section describes factors that have influenced the implementation of the stormwater program and may impact successful outcomes. More broadly, many of these factors are also likely to influence the implementation climate change adaptation activities in the State. It is useful to look at impacts such as stormwater through a climate change lens, as further changes are likely to exacerbate the problem and need to be taken into account when formulating solutions.

Section 5a begins by describing the goal substitution that seems to have occurred at the state level and the new focus on control activities rather than an end result. The subsequent subsections discuss the classification of impaired water bodies (5b), funding (5c), infrastructure (5d), the tightening of regulations as they pass through each level of government (the snowball effect) (5e), and the treatment of all municipalities as the same, regardless of resource availability (5f). The implication of these various factors for climate change adaptation efforts is also discussed.

a. Goal substitution

While the goal of phase II is to reduce pollution in waterways, it is unclear whether this goal is being met and how success (or failure) will be measured. It appears that within New York State, goal substitution has occurred within the program. Awareness of the circumstances under which goal substitution can occur is important because within climate change adaptation activities goal substitution can lead to maladaptations. The original federal goal of the stormwater program was to reduce the pollution in the nation’s water bodies. However, in the New York State Stormwater Guidance Manual for Local Officials, it is stated that the goal is, “to retain or absorb stormwater on developed sites wherever possible, with the quantity, rate, and quality of runoff remaining as they were before the sites were developed” (DEC 2004, p. vi). The goal has been switched from reducing pollution to ensuring that the current runoff is either unaltered or changed “so that the waste load allocation5 is met” (DEC 2008a, p. 8). It is not uncommon as a project progresses for completion of the project itself to take increasing precedence over the original objective (e.g., Tryhorn and Lynch 2010) and this can be seen in the stormwater program through increased emphasis on control activities rather than on concrete water quality goals.

In New York State, water quality standard goals have not been included in the stormwater regulations. Instead, MS4 operators are required to reduce pollutants in the discharge to the maximum extent practical (MEP) through the use of best management practices (BMPs). Yet, no precise definition of MEP exists. The lack of numerical pollution limits has been contentious as it makes any reductions in pollution difficult to quantify. The DEC has been criticized on numerous occasions for not imposing stricter limits (Smith 2008). The BMPs consist of either structural or nonstructural controls that are used to manage the quantity and improve the quality of stormwater runoff.6 The use of BMPs has been hindered by uncertainties in their performance in reducing pollution, as well as by their life cycle costs (Pennington et al. 2003; California State Water Resources Control Board 2008; Clary et al. 2008).

The difficulty in quantifying the effect of these control measures has led to frustration among the municipalities. This was articulated by Susan Ritter, Assistant Director of Planning, Town of Ithaca, “We’re developing ponds that have to be maintained for perpetuity. Are they really going to clean up the water in the long term?”7 In some cases, municipalities simply relabeled practices that they were already carrying out as “stormwater management” (S. Gibson, Environmental Engineer, City of Ithaca, 2008, personal communication). This relabeling increases the difficulty in determining whether the stormwater program is actually having an impact and should be taken into consideration when deciding upon a metric for success.

It is ambiguous as to whether climate change will impact water quality within the state (ClimAID 2010). However, given that adaptive capacity can be constrained by ecological factors, improved water quality may lead to the enhanced resiliency of systems, leaving them better able to cope with any changes to the climate. Within Tompkins County, many groups are taking water quality measurements, including the Community Science Institute, the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, Cornell University, DEC, the City of Ithaca, the SWCD, and the United States Geological Survey. In theory, this would make it possible for water quality goals to be adopted. However, there is a lack of coordination and communication among the groups and the municipalities.

b. The classification of impaired water bodies

Another significant concern is the classification of water bodies as impaired without reliable data (Calamita 2001). This includes impairments that occur only during low-flow or wet-weather conditions. Within New York State, the impairment classification also relates to how the water body can be used. For example, the southern end of Cayuga Lake is classified as impaired because the sediment that the area receives limits swimming (S. Riha, Town of Ithaca Planning Board, 2009, personal communication). However, this classification fails to take into account that Cayuga Lake is part of a delta and therefore naturally receives large amounts of sediment. A third consideration is the legacy effects of agriculture. Much of this area of New York State has reforested naturally over the last 70 years. However, residual pollutants are still being flushed out of waterways. Any practices implemented now will not make any impact on this legacy. These legacy effects need to taken into account when setting goals for stormwater management, as they will impact the final outcome.

More broadly, these same ideas are true of any goals associated with other weather hazards or climate change adaptation activities. In the case of climate change, it will be even more complicated because in addition to past conditions and physical characteristics, likely future changes to the system will also need to be considered. For stormwater, impairment classifications that rely only on data for low-flow or wet-weather conditions will need to be closely examined to see whether this is truly an accurate measure of impairment. Both of these types of weather conditions are likely to increase with climate change and will contribute to management challenges (ClimAID 2010).

c. Funding

1) Finding the money to pay for it

For decades, it has been established practice for the state to pass legislation for projects (such as the stormwater program or the more recent “Climate Smart Communities” program) and then mandate municipal governments to pay for it (Kelly 1994). Unfunded state mandates are cited by the Association of Towns of the State of New York as the primary drivers of municipal budgets and local property taxes (see press release online at http://assembly.state.ny.us/Minority/20080414/). While some municipalities have full-time staff dedicated to stormwater issues, many others do not, nor do they have the resources to hire and train such an individual and as such are ill equipped to deal with the problem.

In the future, there are likely to be other state government programs that municipalities are required to fund. A current example is the Climate Smart Communities Initiative that the DEC that is encouraging communities to join. Unlike the stormwater program, this program is on a volunteer basis. Under this program, communities are required to create a climate change mitigation and adaptation program. While many communities are interested in participating, there is some concern that this is another unsupported program. This many account for why only 42 communities out of the 1605 communities statewide have joined the program.

2) Unnecessary expenditure

Characteristics of adaptive capacity include the resources available for adaptation, as well as the ability for communities to utilize those resources effectively. The stormwater management regulations have created unnecessary local government expenditure in a number of ways, and this expenditure may be contributing to a reduction in adaptive capacity. First, resources have been used to implement stormwater management measures simply to meet the requirements at times when a “do nothing” approach would have been an appropriate response (S. Riha 2008, personal communication). Bill Gray, the Superintendent of Public Works for the City of Ithaca, explained a second scenario, “The DEC has given us several $5000 fines at times when we thought we were in compliance. We do care and if DEC tells us we’re not doing it right, we’ll research it and correct it. We don’t appreciate being fined without warning.”8 Third, some rural MS4s that have little to regulate have been forced to spend money on control measures. The Town of Ulysses is an example of this. Within the town, it is only designated an MS4 along a state road (89). Dick Cooper, Deputy Supervisor, Town of Ulysses, said “Agriculture and residential areas are exempt from the regulations, so even though we’re an MS4 there’s nothing to regulate. The hardest part is having to spend money on stormwater controls.” All MS4s have to submit an annual report outlining the stormwater control measures that they have undertaken. To fulfill the requirements Ulysses led a series of flights over Cayuga Lake that attempted to detect leaky septic systems using experimental thermal imagery. It was the first time this technology had been used for this type of application. Unfortunately, the analysis cost more than expected and there was not enough money to complete the project. The Town spent $15,000 on this project (other municipalities also contributed) and as of June 2009 had still not been reimbursed, despite being allocated the money in 2007.9

Traditionally, funding methods such as ad valorem taxes on property value and water fees have been used for similar programs (Kaspersen 2000). However, the effectiveness of these two options in stormwater management is questionable, as they place the financial burden either on those with high property values or on those who use the most water. Neither corresponds to the volume of stormwater runoff or the burden of managing it, and it therefore does not encourage the reduction of stormwater runoff. This type of scenario again points to the necessity of flexible management structures that can be adapted to the context at hand.

d. Infrastructure

Another factor that complicates the management of stormwater in New York is the number of combined sewer systems (CSSs) in older, urban areas of the State. These sewers collect stormwater, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. During periods of heavy runoff, CSSs are designed to overflow and discharge excess wastewater directly into streams, rivers, or other water bodies. These overflows contain not only stormwater but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris.

The conservative cost estimate of repairing and replacing New York’s municipal wastewater infrastructure is $36.2 billion over the next 20 years (DEC 2008b). In the past, the federal and state governments have provided significant funding for infrastructure repair and replacement. However, in the 1990s, the federal grants program shifted to a low-interest loan program, diminishing the ability for many communities to address infrastructure needs. Since then, little funding was available until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was passed. This Act provided New York State with $435 million for wastewater infrastructure (more details are available online at http://www.economicrecovery.ny.gov/DirectAid/aidnewyork.htm). Even with this assistance, the burden of maintaining wastewater infrastructure falls on local governments. Many municipalities have trouble convincing their residents that infrastructure must be managed proactively and fewer than 40% have a capital improvement plan for their wastewater systems.

Climate change adds an extra layer of complexity to the problem. The expected changes to the character of precipitation have great implications for stormwater management. Kristin Taylor, a civil engineer with the Town of Ithaca, commented, “The biggest problem for us on the horizon in terms of changes to extreme rainfall is that our infrastructure is undersized. It was installed in a small size and we are already experiencing flooding problems.”10 The installation of inappropriately sized infrastructure is not unusual in New York State because of the use of outdated climate data for management and design purposes. The State regulations require the use of total rainfall rates from Technical Paper 40, Rainfall Frequency Atlas of the United States (known as TP-40, see online at http://www.erh.noaa.gov/Tp40s.htm), which was developed using rainfall data from l931 to 1960. Many changes have been seen in the precipitation regime since then (Frumhoff et al. 2007). Given that large investments in infrastructure need to be made, these investments will need to take into account not only the changes in climate seen in the last 50 years, but also changes that are likely in the next 100 years.

e. The snowball effect

Throughout the first five years of the program New York State’s approach to the program has perpetuated a “snowball effect” in the requirements of the stormwater program. As the regulations have proceeded through each level of government (from federal to state to local), each level of government has built upon the regulations, making them more difficult to comply with. First, the State expanded upon the Federal regulations. Second, the realization that even the State requirements might not be enough to combat stormwater pollution effectively meant that many municipalities made their local regulations even stricter. The State does not require that disturbances less than one acre comply with the regulations. However, some municipalities, including the Town of Lansing and the Town and City of Ithaca, require that smaller disturbances comply. The Town of Ithaca is the strictest municipality in Tompkins County. They were having problems associated with erosion from single-family homes and addressed this by making their threshold 10 000 square feet or over (K. Taylor 2008, personal communication). This situation has also manifested in other areas of New York State (e.g., Town of Queensbury, Warren County; Moore 2006). Part of this has been due to the fact that public officials are supportive of the goals of the initiative and would like the program to succeed.

While the Town and City of Ithaca both completed considerable research before creating their local laws and are coping well with the regulations, the Town of Lansing is experiencing difficulties. They also made a stricter local law than was required by the State. Within the town, construction disturbances of half an acre or greater are required to have a stormwater plan. Unfortunately, the Town of Lansing is not as well resourced as the other municipalities and concurrently is experiencing rapid growth. Because most houses disturb half an acre, an extensive workload has been created. Recently Lansing has moved to amend their law, but for an extended period they have not been complying with their own law. This is an important lesson when considering future climate change programs, such as the climate smart community pledge. On the outside, this program seems relatively straightforward. However, when examined more closely, it is apparent that this program will actually entail a large amount of work on behalf of communities in order for it to be effective. Communities will need to be careful not to overextend themselves.

f. One size fits all: Ignoring the common interest

As it stands, the stormwater mandate is a one-size-fits-all policy for municipalities and fails to take into account differences between communities in New York State. The Town of Ithaca serves an urban area with a relatively affluent population. It has the specialized staff and financial resources to explore new stormwater innovations. Smaller municipalities (e.g., Ulysses and Newfield) do not have the resources to dedicate a person to work solely on stormwater issues without ignoring others. Cindy Schulte, Town of Newfield, explained their situation, “Our constituents are concerned with mortgage payments and providing for their families. Our government is striving to repair antiquated municipal infrastructure. Stormwater as an issue cannot compete with the more pressing needs of food, shelter, and safety.”11 At the end of 2007 (toward the end of the trial period), of the 450 MS4 communities statewide affected by phase II, only slightly more than half were prepared to enforce regulations locally.

In small rural towns, where only a portion of the municipality is designated an MS4 (e.g., along a major road), for ease of implementation some towns will apply their stormwater law to the whole town rather than just the MS4 area (S. Ritter 2008, personal communication) This creates an additional workload and cost, but some towns have preferred this approach over having to explain why only parts of the town have to follow the regulations (J. Verrigni, Tompkins County SWCD, 2008, personal communication). Many in these communities felt frustrated by the inflexible nature of the state regulations. Dick Cooper gave an example, “We had to order a local construction site to stop work, yet they were surrounded by ploughed fields with dirty water running off everywhere that are exempt from the regulations.”12 This type of situation can be particularly trying for those attempting to enforce these regulations in the small community that they live in. As the climate changes, future measures to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather cannot be one size fits all and must take into account the local context. The great physiographic, land use, and demographic diversity of New York State necessitates a flexible approach to setting stormwater management and, more broadly, adaptation priorities in general.

6. Alternatives

This section details some alternatives that arose from this analysis. The alternatives are focused on management techniques that could improve decision making capabilities rather than on concrete stormwater reduction techniques.

a. Managing water issues on a county or watershed basis

Despite the complicated system of government within New York, the decentralized nature of it does have some advantages. It allows for a great deal of experimentation with a variety of new ideas, policies, and practices with minimal contact from federal and state authorities. Local scale can provide an area to test alternatives and permit identification of new opportunities for adaptation—what is realistic and possible?

Management of the stormwater issue at a county level is an alternative that would create more consistency across the state, while still being at a small enough scale to incorporate local knowledge and experience. Currently, stormwater management is extremely fragmented across the state and there has been a failure to act synergistically, across borders. This is problematic because one municipality’s failure to comply can negatively affect other municipalities in the same watershed. This segmented approach has also created problems for developers. They need to be familiar with not only the state law but also with individual municipal laws (K. Taylor 2008, personal communication).

There are already several examples of cross-jurisdictional programs practiced within the state. An extension of these programs could be useful in reducing the redundancy that currently exists and optimizing resource use, while keeping in mind that complete efficiency is infeasible given the diverse interests involved. Regional bodies such as the Finger Lakes–Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance and the County Water Quality Coordinating Committees exist, but do not always interact with municipalities on a regular basis. In the Syracuse area, the Central New York Regional Planning Board has launched a regional program consisting of 26 municipalities in Onondaga and Madison Counties. Because joining these regional programs is not compulsory, there is a chance that the municipalities that need the most assistance will slip through the cracks.

Regionally based stormwater management programs have been successfully carried out in other states (e.g., the California State Water Resources Control Board oversees nine regional boards). Using the SWCDs to coordinate the stormwater effort countywide is also a possibility. Many of municipalities in Tompkins County felt that the SWCD staff had provided invaluable assistance and that they would not have reached compliance without them. This experience in stormwater management contains lessons for climate change adaptation efforts. There are many regional groups already operating in New York that could be used as a springboard for adaptation activities. This approach could be particularly effective when formulating adaptation plans for impacts or activities that are likely to relevant regionally, such as drought or flooding or even education.

b. Using a networking strategy

Rayner and Malone (1998) established that social networks, rather than the form and volume of information received, are a key variable in explaining whether people pay attention to the threats associated with climate change and enter into behavioral changes. A networking approach would still maintain the benefits of the local participation, yet would allow more regional coordination. Towns, cities, and villages within a particular county or regional area could learn from the successes and failures of their neighbors. The presence of a lead town or other entity can play a key role in mobilizing efforts in the surrounding region by providing leadership in education, best management practices, and fund raising. This approach was recently highlighted by the Center for Clean Air Policy as a useful approach in serving community adaptation needs (Lowe et al. 2009).

DEC has attempted to facilitate some intermunicipal cooperation through funding available to municipalities that form stormwater coalitions, but it could go much further. Some municipalities felt the funds available were too paltry to be worth applying for. For example the Stormwater Coalition of Monroe County was awarded a grant for the amount of $485 803, or $16 752 per MS4 (there are 29) (Stormwater Coalition of Monroe County 2008). This amount cannot cover the cost of a full-time staff member for each municipality. However it could provide several county-wide staff.

The formation and utilization of the coalitions has been somewhat haphazard across the state. Susan Ritter said about the Tompkins County Stormwater Coalition, “Having the Stormwater Coalition has been really helpful for all the communities that have been having a hard time. We can co-ordinate to share activities, such as mapping, and we can talk about issues we face. Other parts of the state don’t have such a strong coalition.”13 Other examples of possible intermunicipal coordination could include purchasing shared equipment, using the same GIS system, and running inspections at a county level.

c. More systemic collaboration between state and local governments

Conflict is built into the regulatory process. State agencies are required to comply with national standards set by federal agencies and concurrently allow for local politics and environments (Banks and Weingast 1992; Rasmussen 2000). It is essential that communications among local governments, conservation authorities, state and federal agencies, and the public be improved. “The State could have communicated with us more effectively. Occasionally we get different messages from the Albany DEC office and the Syracuse DEC office as to what we are supposed to be doing. Additionally, they change the annual report requirements regularly,” said Susan Ritter.14 Conflicting interests and perspectives, a lack of trust, and a fear of change continue to inhibit communication. These factors were seen as inherent to the culture of local government by Keen and Mercer (1993).

Clarification and simplification of the regulatory maze currently surrounding stormwater in New York is essential to mitigate the current practice of muddling through. The stormwater policies are complex and there appears to be confusion between DEC and the municipalities about the details of the regulations. This is further complicated by the evolutionary nature of the laws. Mandatory preconsultation with municipalities and other review agencies is one mechanism that could potentially realize improved communication. Preconsultation could have also been helpful before the Climate Smart Communities program was launched. Instead of a stand-alone program, perhaps the program could have been better integrated into activities that municipalities are already undertaking. However, it is unclear under what circumstances, if any, both levels of government would be interested in listening to each other.

d. Throw out the design manuals: More flexibility needed

Given the changes in our climate, there is a need to replace standards and practices that were considered permanent with ones that provide for the nonstationarity. In addition, decision makers may have difficulty accessing climate data and may find it is challenging to integrate with other information types (e.g., economic, demographic, etc.). Across New York State new infrastructure is being built and old is being replaced using a manual based on antiquated climate information (as mentioned in section 5d), despite the fact that more recent information is available from the Northeast Regional Climate Center. This approach needs be rethought. Water infrastructure, use patterns, and institutions have developed in the context of past climate conditions; however, with a changing climate a more dynamic system is needed. A web-based climate information system for New York would serve this purpose and allow municipalities, state agencies, and developers access to the most recent climate information. While the regulations themselves cannot be altered too frequently, a web-based system would allow decision makers greater access to the climate variables of key importance to New York State. The regulations could then be reviewed on a periodic basis and it would be possible to take advantage of new information and advances in understanding (e.g., new statistical techniques). This approach may also help to address the language gap between the scientists and the nonscientists that can often make interpreting and using climate information products difficult.

e. Funding

The biggest complaint from the municipalities about the stormwater program was the lack of funding provided for implementation. It is likely that for many municipalities local property taxes and the cost of development will increase, without substantial improvements in water quality. One recommendation is that before a state mandate is applied, municipalities be required formulate a plan to fund the program, instead of funding it retroactively. As the state government urges communities to move forward on climate change mitigation and adaptation programs, these types of alternative funding processes need to be considered. Mandating programs that the municipalities cannot afford to implement could actually be contributing to reductions in their adaptive capacity. Given that DEC is well known for being underfunded, understaffed, and overstretched, one way to maximize limited state funding in adaptation activities may be to support leading local entities as adaptation champions.

f. Adaptive governance: The way forward?

The alternatives presented all highlight flexible approaches to governance that emphasize learning from experience. Overall, the way forward may be the adaptive governance approach for the management of complex environmental issues outlined by Brunner et al. (2005): “Adaptive governance includes the adaptation of policy decision to experience on the ground as real people interact with each other and the soils, waters, plants, and animals in specific contexts. Sound policy takes differences and changes in their contexts into account. Because of its emphasis on adapting to experience on the ground, adaptive governance is an expression of American pragmatism, not another set of utopian aspirations.” Adaptive governance may help to avoid the pitfalls of goal displacement and the standardization of practices to the extent that policy changes to differences on the ground become impossible (Brunner et al. 2005). It is a way to develop the adaptive capacity to improvise and adjust to recurring crises. Related to this approach is the strategy of reform by exemption (Brunner et al. 2005). This type of strategy is often more politically feasible than large-scale reforms, yet still allows adaptation to differences and changes in context. Typically this involves exempting a certain industrial sector or region from some form of regulatory control. Thus, it is not necessary to plan in advance and in sufficient detail everything needed for a transition to adaptive governance.

7. Discussion

It is apparent that the stormwater program in New York State was developed with limited input from local governments, which does not foster cooperation or a clear understanding of the objectives. The current policies fail to adequately address the fundamental problems affecting local government in New York: fragmented jurisdiction, interagency communication, financial arrangements, enforcement, and the promotion of informed decision making. Consequently, these policies may be acting to reduce adaptive capacity in some areas by reducing the ability of local governments to adjust practices to their local situation and maximize the available resources most effectively.

In general the entire stormwater program is better suited for urban areas, not areas typical of upstate New York. The common interest has not been supported (the interests of well-resourced communities have been upheld over the interests of other communities). This is not an unusual occurrence; as Nelson et al. (2007) put it, “In many situations and examples, it appears that the incidence of vulnerability within the social and natural systems is not central to decision making and adaptive action. As a result, adaptive actions often reduce the vulnerability of those best placed to take advantage of governance institutions, rather than reduce the vulnerability of the marginalized or the undervalued parts of the social–ecological system.”

Despite the difficulties experienced with the implementation of Stormwater phase II, public officials and government agency staff were generally supportive of the initiative. This is encouraging as phase II, if effectively utilized, could provide an opportunity to build an important network both horizontally and vertically in government in New York State. This framework could then be built upon for other environmental issues, such as water resource management or climate change–related adaptation actions and may lead the way for adaptive governance. As the regulations stand, it appears that an unnecessary amount of time, energy, and resources is going into their implementation. This is problematic, as it is possible that municipalities will begin to suffer adaptation fatigue and lose enthusiasm for other such endeavors.

The challenges and lessons presented in this article facing the municipalities in New York State can be used as an example of those facing other communities as they attempt to adapt to the impacts of climate change and the associated changes in extreme weather events. Given that adaptation is more effectively conceived and realized at the local scale, it is crucial to also consider local factors that may limit the potential for adaptation (Adger et al. 2005). For adaptations to be successful, we need to be aware of not only the physical climate but also the social and political constraints.

This article is intended to serve as an initial model for other university-based researchers that are interested in serving their local communities with weather, climate, and policy research and are willing to engage in the complexities involved. It is hoped that by highlighting these challenges more informed decision making can occur with regard to climate change adaptation toward extreme events. Adaptive governance may provide a way forward and actionable science will be an important element of this. Science applied in adaptive governance is accessible and relevant through the integration of knowledge about the particular context. Continuing on from this study, the author hopes to field-test the ideas presented in this article by launching a community-based initiative in Tompkins County. Climate change will bring with it many other issues for local governments; by examining the current situation in New York State, it is hoped we can better prepare for the future.

Acknowledgments

The author is grateful for illuminating discussions with Art DeGaetano and Susan Riha and for honest and frank interviews with the participants in this study. The author would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editor for constructive and insightful comments that greatly contributed greatly to improvements in this manuscript.

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Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Graph of the number of extreme precipitation events (over 50 mm in 24 h) per year in New York State. The figure was created from daily cooperative network precipitation data from 46 stations and was obtained from the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 2, 2; 10.1175/2009WCAS1015.1

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

(a) Map of New York State showing the location of Tompkins County (gray). (b) Map of Tompkins County.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 2, 2; 10.1175/2009WCAS1015.1

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Land use and land cover in Tompkins County in 2000.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 2, 2; 10.1175/2009WCAS1015.1

Table 1.

United States 2000 Census demographic profile (available online at http://factfinder.census.gov/home/saff/main.html?_lang=en).

Table 1.

1

Under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act, every two years states are required to submit a list of waters for which pollutants limits will not be sufficient to meet state water quality standards. In New York State this definition relates to how the water body can be used.

2

A boundary object provides a common point of reference between scientists and nonscientists.

3

For the purposes of this study, “municipalities” refers to cities, towns, and villages.

4

Please note that these are two different municipalities.

5

The maximum load of pollutants each discharger of waste is allowed to release into a particular waterway.

6

Structural BMPs for stormwater are physical undertakings and construction projects. Nonstructural BMPs include measures such as town planning controls, pollution prevention procedures, education and participation programs, and regulatory controls.

7

Interview in Ithaca, New York, 21 August 2008.

8

Interview in Ithaca, 5 June 2008.

9

In this case, the Town was required to spend the money and then provide receipts to the State.

10

Interview in Ithaca, 21 August 2008.

11

Interview in Ithaca, 23 December 2008.

12

Interview in Ithaca, 15 December 2008.

13

Interview in Ithaca, 21 August 2008.

14

Interview in Ithaca, 21 August 2008.

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