Aquatic ecosystems have been placed under immense pressure from increasing urban and agricultural land uses, driving the loss of aquatic biodiversity and the value of these systems for human use (Dudgeon et al. 2006, Grizzetti et al. 2016). This local environmental degradation aggregates downstream into catastrophe—sometimes quite far downstream, such as a coastal “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, generating serious and long-term social, environmental, and economic impacts (Rabotyagov et al. 2014). In the United States, laws such as the Clean Water Act aim to reduce pollutants to these ecosystems and encourage the use of best practices to minimize polluted runoff and restore functionality. But as Stormwater details, these negative impacts are numerous and persistent.
The book's author, William G. Wilson, is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at Duke University, and he has a background in physics and theoretical ecology. Stormwater represents a collection of scholarly material that Wilson uses in the Stormwater Science graduate student seminar that he teaches at Duke. The bulk of the book is focused on the United States; however, there are examples from other countries and regions spread throughout.
From a scientific and engineering standpoint, Stormwater is a treasure trove of systems analysis and data. As is evidenced by the list of readings at the end of each chapter and the lengthy references section, the book covers just about everything that is currently known about the patterns and consequences of stormwater runoff from agricultural and urban areas. The author does an admirable job explaining the technical approaches used to collect and analyze these data, as well as how to interpret the sometimes-confusing figures used to clarify these results. Numerous illustrations help explain important concepts, such as the structural simplification commonly seen in urban streams.
There are numerous, well-supported, and interesting facts, large and small, scattered throughout the chapters, such as the following: (a) The ecological and hydrological degradation of waterways is evident even when impervious surface covers just 10% of a watershed. (b) The impact of this impervious surface on biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function can be mitigated by decreasing the proportion of water that is delivered directly to them through stormwater pipes; indirect delivery through subsurface flow is less damaging. (c) The contribution of heavy metals to the environment from vehicle brakes can be measured by runoff from the sides of exit ramps (but not entrance ramps) to highways. (d) Different kinds of asphalt sealant for parking lots vary considerably in the amount of pollution that runs off of them; for example, in places such as Los Angeles County, where 14 percent of the county is parking lots (Chester et al. 2015), changing sealants could significantly reduce the pollutant load reaching streams. (e) Mercury bioaccumulation can be greater in relatively undisturbed watersheds: Increased nutrients in human-dominated watersheds boost plant productivity (terrestrial and aquatic), and the extra plant biomass dilutes the mercury in the system. (f) Urbanization often increases the number of headwater streams with permanent flow as a result of nonprecipitation-originated runoff from lawn irrigation and other constant water usage. (g) Because nitrogen can take up to 30 years to cycle out of a watershed (from soils to streams to downstream receiving water bodies), identifying the total share of nitrogen loading in a water body from current agricultural sources can be difficult.
I have chosen to summarize these facts in list form because it reflects the writing style quite appropriately: The reader emerges from each chapter with a long collection of facts and interesting tidbits but with no clear thread running through them. Subheadings within each chapter would have greatly increased the readability of the book. Furthermore, both the methodologies described and the writing itself are extremely technical, with text made dense by large amounts of data and other specifics. Entire paragraphs are dedicated to explaining measurement units (e.g., why polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are measured in tons per 1 degree quadrat) that would have been much better placed out of the way in footnotes or an appendix.
The broad brushstrokes, promised in the preface and in the titles of the chapters, are too difficult to keep track of once the reader dives into the material. This is unfortunate, because some key facts, such as those listed above, that are relevant to land use, zoning, and stormwater-management policies are buried by numbers and technical prose. The most unfocused chapter is “Nutrients,” which wanders through a great deal of territory regarding a diversity of nitrogen inputs without providing much of an overview of large-scale sources and sinks. However, the “Control measures” chapter benefits from this level of detail, providing a valuable review of the strengths and weaknesses (and context-specific appropriateness) of numerous stormwater-management approaches (including best-management practices, low-impact development, sustainable urban water management, and sustainable urban drainage systems). However, this last chapter is highly technical and may be difficult for some policymakers to access, calling into question their role as a target audience addressed in the book's subtitle.
Although the book provides great detail on the science and technical management of stormwater, the drivers of stormwater (e.g., poor land use planning, perverse economic incentives, and inadequate or ineffective policy implementation) are glossed over. A two-page appendix provides a very superficial history of stormwater policies in the United States since the 1800s without discussing any of the complexity of Clean Water Act implementation. Scientists and civil engineers will be the most comfortable with the text and are likely to find it incredibly useful, either for practice or in seminars for science and engineering students—as the author designed it. However, for courses or readers who need to understand the social, economic, and policy drivers that generate excess stormwater (and its pollutants), Stormwater is likely to come up short. I highly recommend combining this book with more policy-focused readings such as Economic Incentives for Stormwater Control (Thurston 2011).