It is a common sight: murky water rushing down the side of a road during a downpour, usually finding its way into a storm drain.

Then, it is out of sight, out of mind. Poof! The liquid, along with debris and dissolved materials like oils and fertilizers, is magically gone.

In reality, the polluted water has not disappeared. Unless it is somehow caught and treated, it dumps straight into rivers and streams through an outfall.

You have seen it. The dirty water goes through pipes that empty into the rivers and streams. Usually these outfalls are dry, unless there was a recent storm. This nonpoint source pollution, not originating from one place such as a factory, harms the water we will drink and the environment.

A stricter permit for stormwater discharges from small municipal separate storm sewer systems, or MS4 for short, was scheduled to begin in 2017. The implementation was delayed a year.

"I don't see it as being a huge deal," said Mark Wetzel, Department of Public Works superintendent in Ayer. "We've been doing a lot already."

"It's good public works," he said of the federal requirements. The town has held a permit for years.

This spring, the DPW worked with a Girl Scout troop to install a rain garden, a filtration system with plants and deeper drainage, at its location on Brook Street. Another is planned for Pirone Park to filter contaminates from the parking lot before they hit the pond.


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Improvements to several catch basins will remove more solids and floatable pollutants before the water gets into the drainage system.

The MS4 permits, jointly administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, MassDEP, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, were first issued in Massachusetts in 2003, said MassDEP Assistant Commissioner Doug Fine.

The program is intended to eliminate discharges to surface water from stormwater runoff. Most municipalities in the state with a high-enough population density are required to meet the standards, Fine said.

Two cities, Worcester and Boston, are covered under separate permits. A few towns received a waiver because they were able to demonstrate that stormwater discharge did not impact the surface water, he said.

Shirley has only three small areas will be covered by the MS4 permit, said Conservation Agent Mike Fleming. In 2003, there was only one.

The first step of filing a notice of intent for the permit is not that expensive, he said. The Zoning Board of Appeals is looking at stormwater bylaw changes that would affect the entire town.

In Pepperell, the additional year is appreciated. The town had a waiver for the 2003 permit, but is required to seek a permit for part of the town in 2018.

"We're very much behind the curve," said DPW Director Ken Kalinowski.

Only the part of the town that is urbanized is legally required to be brought into compliance under the newest MS4 permit. The town needs to decide whether to bring the entire system into compliance as it goes along or wait until it is required.

"Eventually all of the community will be under permit," he said. He sees the year delay not as a reprieve but as a chance to get all of the town's financial ducks in a row.

The process is expensive. One of the first steps is to map the drainage system. If a spill happened in a wooded area, knowing where it would come out is beneficial, Kalinowski said.

Drainage in the center of the town is more formal than in the rural areas, with storm drains and pipes. On country roads, stormwater might collect in a drainage ditch, flow through a catch basin and then into a field.

Shirley is looking at a similar issue. "We have to identify all outfalls," Fleming said. That means hiring someone to map the town using GPS.

That has to be paid for. "Everything hurts when it's an unfunded thing," he said. "A small town like Shirley has a hard time."

Although new to the requirements, Pepperell belongs to a stormwater co-op through the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, NMCOG.

Pepperell can learn through the experiences of other towns in the collaborative that are further along in the process, Kalinowski said. 

Funding the work is a concern.

"Every town is pretty much on its own," Kalinowski said. Meeting requirements "will generate its own microcosm of capital needs."

"Compliance is not optional," he said.

As regulations get tighter, more infrastructure will need to be rebuilt or replaced. The town has to decide how the costs will be handled.

Creating a stormwater utility with an enterprise fund that can be used for related expenses might be the fairest way to go, he said. Fees might be based on parcel size or on the amount of impervious surface on the lot.

A parcel that includes a building with a large roof and paved parking lot has a big impact on stormwater. It has less natural filtration than a large farm where water is filtered through the open land.

The state has a variety of competitive grants administered by MassDEP and other agencies that can help municipalities pay for stormwater improvements, Pine said.

A low-cost loan from a state revolving fund for wastewater infrastructure improvements is also available.

Ayer hopes to pay for some of its stormwater requirements through the grants. Town Engineer Dan Van Schalkwyk applied for a Section 319 grant from MassDEP that would provide $60 in federal funding for every $40 the town spends to reduce nonpoint pollution within the watershed.

Education is a required part of the permit. Since Pepperell is part of the NMCOG collaboration, there could be an economy of scale in preparing materials that the town can take advantage of, Kalinowski said.

Ayer is not in a collaborative, but did meet with DEP and nearby towns about the requirements, Wetzel said. Working as a group means the individual towns will not be reinventing the wheel when it comes to public outreach.

The meeting was scheduled before the delay for the permits was announced.

Several parties filed petitions to review the permit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the EPA states on its website. Lowell is one of the petitioners.

"Postponing the effective date for one year pending judicial review should give EPA ample time to determine what, if any, changes are appropriate in the permit and to determine next steps," the agency wrote in its announcement.

The year's postponement will also bring the state in line with New Hampshire, which has an effective date of July 1, 2018 for the permit, according to the online file.

The year-long postponement could be challenged. Other delays under the current administration have been challenged in court, Fleming said.

Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.