The Norman Transcript

August 4, 2013

TMDL report could help make some needed changes

The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Editor, The Transcript:

On July 23, the DEQ hosted a public meeting to present a draft of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Lake Thunderbird.

Several city staff were in attendance, along with state employees OCC and EPA staff. Also present was a strong contingent of developers, construction industry lobbyists and the politicians who represent their interests at the state Capitol.

Once the final draft of the TMDL study is complete, the clock starts ticking. Norman will have 24 months to cut pollutant loads to Lake Thunderbird by 35 percent or else face hefty fines.

There is a bit of history to how this TMDL study has unfolded, why it was necessary and how the city of Norman and its various actors have dealt with the information.

From 2008 to 2009, state agencies began monitoring critical areas in the watershed to produce hydrologic models that would inform the TMDL study. The goal was to identify sources and levels of pollution and to help determine how best to fix it.

In June 2011, with the TMDL and subsequent federal mandates looming in the background, city officials took a proactive stance, adopting the Stormwater Master Plan and passing a Water Quality Protection Zone ordinance.

Push back from developers has been fierce. They continue to fight implementation of any scientifically proven environmental controls recommended by the Stormwater Master Plan. This “total war” strategy embraced by the Norman Developers Council has not been without success.

In retaliation for the city imposing what turned out to be rather weak and flexible environmental controls, NDC — along with certain factions at the Chamber — threw their support behind the most oppositional, regressive political caricatures they could find.

Former Council members Spaulding, Gallagher and Lockett all had campaign coffers that would have remained mostly empty without the steady flow of money from developers. And in 2012, they managed to stack the deck with another joker, Chad Williams.

In this most recent election cycle, however, we witnessed a change. Electioneering schemes proved less effective. The developers’ costly smear campaign against Mayor Cindy Rosenthal not only backfired horribly, their attempts to confuse and mislead voters brought down a minor public relations disaster on the whole city.

The same NDC and Chamber interests who rely on Norman’s positive image to attract investment did far more to damage the city’s reputation with a single campaign than any small collection of “anti-business” activist groups ever could. So much for end games and brinkmanship. This campaign was the theater of the absurd.

These political upshots and PR disasters are of minor significance compared to the large-scale environmental damage we’ve allowed over the years. Under pressure from developers, the council has made many concessions on water quality.

The EPA’s highest recommended, Best Management Practice, for eliminating storm water pollution discharges (the 100-foot buffer) was whittled away by developers. They also inserted a grandfather clause to exempt pre-platted properties.

Since so many of these properties are already platted, development will continue sprawling into the Thunderbird watershed for the foreseeable future. Zoning changes don’t stir the kind of controversy they probably should, and that’s another reason to worry. Maybe the TMDL report will help change that.

The SWMP recommended a ban on phosphate fertilizers. City staff estimated that such a ban would reduce phosphorus loads by 8 percent, a sizable dent in the 35 percent reductions outlined in the TMDL. Council members considered this option but settled instead on an ordinance favoring a less compulsory approach that focused on registering commercial applicators and distributing pamphlets to retailers and consumers.

A year after passing a stripped-down WQPZ ordinance, the council granted Milligan Trucking Company a complete exemption from it. That set a dangerous precedent. If the city intends to fight the TMDL mandates in court or challenge penalties for noncompliance, this could be a sticking point.

Getting pushed around by developers is not an excuse that will hold up in court. The city’s unwillingness to exercise its authority isn’t the EPA’s problem.

Because developers would rather stall progress, play by their own rules and stack the deck with absurd political caricatures, Norman citizens will pay the price. The fines for noncompliance, the costs associated with cleaning up the developers’ mess, will be passed on to taxpayers. Same old story: Socialize the losses, privatize the gains.

There are consequences to this long-standing, unofficial taboo on curbing sprawl, or even using the word “sprawl.” Norman now has to answer to a federal agency, and there’s a deadline.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the council will be forced to toughen up a bit and take a firmer stand against developers. Maybe the NDC will find out it’s much harder to fight the EPA than it is to buy ambitious politicians and turn the whole process into a travesty.

Casey Holcomb