NORMAN — We drink our storm water.
Water’s most notable characteristic is its fluidity. In nature, this means that rain falling in a wide area runs into various streams and tributaries, including Little River which feeds into Lake Thunderbird — Norman’s primary drinking source.
The vegetation along riverbeds provide a natural filtering process for water runoff, but in urban settings, build out and the use of fertilizers and other chemicals can pose challenges to this system, especially where soil and rock have been denuded.
On June 28, 2011, the Norman City Council adopted an ordinance that created the Water Quality Protection Zone. The protection zone requires buffers around the streams and drainage that feed into Little River and end up in the lake.
The protection zone ordinance did not come about overnight, though some argue it was pushed through at the ninth hour just as three new council members likely to oppose it came on board.
The Storm Water Master Plan’s scope was outlined throughout 2006 and involved two committees comprised of Norman residents. The plan was commissioned and developed by an outside professional starting in January 2007. It was completed in October 2009, and the Storm Water Action Plan was adopted in November of that year along with portions of the master plan.
In December 2009, Water Quality Protection Zone ordinances were drafted with input from the Storm Water Task Force, developer groups and city council. Meetings with developers, public meetings, subcommittees and a task force were involved in the two-year process that led up to the adoption of the protection zones by Norman City Council.
The purposes of the WQPZ are to improve the quality of storm water before it enters the lake, to reduce flooding resulting from development along streams and to reduce streamside erosion. A Water Quality Protection Zone is simply a vegetative strip of land along a stream. In most cases, that strip is mandated to average 100 feet wide, but engineered variances that protect the watershed are allowed.
Recently, the Norman City Council granted an exemption from the WQPZ to a small business owner in a 6-to-3 vote. Some are concerned that this will create a domino effect that will undermine the years of work that went into finding solutions to water quality protection.
“I think it sets a bad precedent,” said Charles Wesner, Norman resident and chair of the Oklahoma Chapter of Sierra Club. “If people come in and buy property and can’t get what they want, they’ll ask for an exemption. This can continue. It may not be all of it.”
Wesner said while smaller properties may find the 100-foot average buffer prohibitive, there is already a mechanism in place to deal with that through the use of an engineered variance.
His wife, Lyntha Wesner, sat on the Stormwater Committee that worked with city staff and the city council to create the WQPZ. The committee also included numerous builders and developers.
“We have an impaired lake,” she said. “It’s well documented. Scientists know it. People know it. When you look at that in the long view, if we keep doing what we’re doing now, we’ve compromised 70 percent of our drinking water supply.”
The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality has classified Lake Thunderbird as impaired. Levels of Chlorophyll-A are seven times greater than regulation standards, according to DEQ.
In addition, the lake tests with elevated amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, dissolved solids and sediment. That puts Lake Thunderbird at risk to develop algal toxins, which would threaten public health and impact recreational use.
The Wesners and Utilities Director Shawn O’Leary say many of the requirements of the WQPZ are things that local developers were doing already anyway.
“The underlying principle of that scope for the Storm Water Master Plan was water quality,” O’Leary said.
While many cities do a storm water plan primarily to focus on drainage issues, Norman’s primary focus was water quality, even though drainage was dealt with as well.
“It’s our duty to try to prevent further pollution,” O’Leary said. “The remedies are multiple.”
In addition to establishing the protection zone, other remedies include erosion control, detention ponds and street sweepers. But the runoff from storm water into the lake from the broad watershed area is heavily impacting the lake’s water quality, he said. The WQPZ ordinance is designed to protect Norman residents by protecting the primary water source.
“It really is a model ordinance across the country,” O’Leary said.