July 25, 2002

New stormwater rules looming for contractors

  • Seattle firm has a solution based on electrocoagulation
    Special to the Journal

    Photo by Terry Stephens/Features Northwest
    Jim Mothersbaugh, left, and Dave Hall of WaterTectonics operate a compact stormwater treatment plant in a corner of a new Fred Meyer and Home Depot shopping center in Redmond. The system cleans high turbidity water without a huge settling pond.

    The end of this year will see significant changes in stormwater permits for smaller construction projects. The new federal and state laws will affect 70 cities and eight counties designated as “urbanized areas” and scores of contractors who want to build in those areas.

    Along with changes in stormwater standards to protect the environment, particularly salmon streams, the state Department of Ecology has established a committee of experts to screen and approve new technology solutions that would help contractors meet the tougher controls.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new Phase II stormwater standards will take effect in December, administered by Washington’s Department of Ecology, with a compliance deadline of March 2003 for permitting.

    One significant change in the EPA regulations is that construction projects involving more than 1 acre will need stormwater permits, whereas permits are now only required for projects on sites 5 acres or larger.

    On the horizon are more stringent EPA and Ecology regulations for controlling levels of phosphorus and metals in water discharged into the storm drain network from construction sites.

    To help meet the stormwater restrictions and future environmental challenges, Ecology recently formed a technology review committee in Olympia to evaluate and formally accept successful new high-tech approaches for solving various ecology problems, said Ron Devitt of Ecology’s Northwest Regional Office in Bellevue.

    "The most significant thing about this site approach is that we have demonstrated that we can treat water without settling ponds."

    -- Jim Mothersbaugh,


    “One reason it was created was to provide a certain amount of testing for new products, devices or processes for solving stormwater treatment problems, to be sure they do what they claim to do and then to grant (successful ones) formal recognition as approved solution options,” he said.

    At some point, those who are investing time and money in developing emerging technologies should be able to expect official government “acceptance” of their idea, Devitt said.


    One company that has received acceptance of its technologically innovative environmental protection process, even prior to the formation of the new Ecology review committee, is WaterTectonics of Seattle. The company’s electrocoagulation process has been helping to set standards as well as meet them, said CEO and chemist Jim Mothersbaugh.

    “It’s a touchy issue about government offices endorsing commercial products or processes,” Mothersbaugh said. “But so far our acceptance (by the city of Redmond and Ecology) has come because we’ve been able to exceed every standard they’ve asked for.”

    Mothersbaugh, working with Vice President of Operations Robert Schwindt, used electrocoagulation technology discovered in the early 1900s to create a modern application so effective it is enabling Ecology to raise the bar on clean stormwater standards.

    The very fine and extremely light-weight floating particles in surface runoff water are charged, which keeps them separated from each other and suspended in water almost indefinitely — a threat to fish.

    But when stormwater is passed through an array of electrical cells that apply both positive and negative charges, the particles cling together, gather weight and sink to the bottom of catch basins, leaving water clean enough for Ecology standards.

    “Until our process, there was no alternative to the chemical treatment (of stormwater) that (Ecology) accepted,” Mothersbaugh said. “(Ecology) has given us great support in the development of our electrocoagulation process.”

    Fewer settling ponds

    A year ago, at a Renton condominium construction project near the Boeing 737/757 plant, turbid water from a settling pond rated at 128 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Units) was treated with the electrocoagulation process and then discharged into Lake Washington at levels measuring less than 5 NTU, exceeding Ecology limits.

    The latest phase of the firm’s electrocoagulation development is operating at a new Fred Meyer and Home Depot shopping center construction site in Redmond, at the end of state Route 520.

    “We’re taking a unique approach at this site,” said Dave Hall, WaterTectonics marketing director. “We’ve demonstrated the reduced need for settling ponds, substituting specialized metal tanks that process the water through electrocoagulation cells and into a polishing pond before discharging it directly into Bear Creek.”

    Surface water at the shopping center site is currently collected in a maze of concrete detention vaults, then passed through the electrocoagulation system and into the polishing pond where wetlands vegetation will be growing in the future.

    “The most significant thing about this site approach is that we have demonstrated that we can treat water without settling ponds, making the treatment facility more compact and allowing the contractor to operate on the part of the site that would normally be reserved for a large retention basin,” Mothersbaugh said.

    Devitt said Ecology likes electrocoagulation because it offers less danger of harming the environment than chemical treatments.

    “Treatment control by chemicals is fine if everyone is doing it property, but when you start adding chemicals to the water, you have to monitor that process constantly to make sure everything is done responsibly. WaterTectonics’ process does the same thing without chemicals, which simplifies it bureaucratically and practically,” Devitt said.

    “(From) our point of view, turbidity and sediment is a big deal,” he added, particularly in a normal wet year when maintaining the proper water quality is a big problem for contractors.

    Stormwater information
    Washington State Department of Ecology


    “It’s easy to get stuck in the middle of a project (with weather changes) ... this process is like an insurance policy. It’s there if you need it,” Devitt said.

    “New regulatory standards are expected to require even more stringent treatment, such as removing 50 percent of phosphorus,” Hall said. “We have already removed 90 percent of the phosphorus with our process, as well as removing 90 percent or more of the metals and pesticides in run-off water, often to non-detectible levels.”

    Hall and Mothersbaugh see their process becoming even more important in coming years.

    “Where we see things going is making all used water reusable with treatment. Many people think water shortage is the next great issue we will face,” Hall said. “We can help solve that crisis.”


    Terry Stephens is a freelance writer based in Arlington. He can be reached by e-mail at

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