Information provided for reference purposes only

Note: This information is provided for reference purposes only. Although the information provided here was accurate and current when first created, it is now outdated.

NPS CategoriesWhat Is NPS Pollution?Publications and Information ResourcesInfo for Students and EducatorsFunding OpportunitiesOutreachKids PageNPS HomepageCWACZARA

NPS Button Bar
EPA/OW header


A. Management Measure for Planning, Siting, and Developing Roads and Highways

Plan, site, and develop roads and highways to:

  1. Protect areas that provide important water quality benefits or are particularly susceptible to erosion or sediment loss;
  2. Limit land disturbance such as clearing and grading and cut and fill to reduce erosion and sediment loss; and
  3. Limit disturbance of natural drainage features and vegetation.

1. Applicability

This measure is intended to be applied by States to site development and land disturbing activities for new, relocated, and reconstructed (widened) roads (including residential streets) and highways in order to reduce the generation of nonpoint source pollutants and to mitigate the impacts of urban runoff and associated pollutants from such activities. Under the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990, States are subject to a number of requirements as they develop coastal NPS programs in conformity with this management measure and will have some flexibility in doing so. The application of management measures by States is described more fully in Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program: Program Development and Approval Guidance, published jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

2. Description

The best time to address control of NPS pollution from roads and highways is during the initial planning and design phase. New roads and highways should be located with consideration of natural drainage patterns and planned to avoid encroachment on surface waters and wet areas. Where this is not possible, appropriate controls will be needed to minimize the impacts of NPS runoff on surface waters.

This management measure emphasizes the importance of planning to identify potential NPS problems early in the design process. This process involves a detailed analysis of environmental features most associated with NPS pollution, erosion and sediment problems such as topography, drainage patterns, soils, climate, existing land use, estimated traffic volume, and sensitive land areas. Highway locations selected, planned, and designed with consideration of these features will greatly minimize erosion and sedimentation and prevent NPS pollutants from entering watercourses during and after construction. An important consideration in planning is the distance between a highway and a watercourse that is needed to buffer the runoff flow and prevent potential contaminants from entering surface waters. Other design elements such as project alignment, gradient, cross section, and the number of stream crossings also must be taken into account to achieve successful control of erosion and nonpoint sources of pollution. (Refer to Chapter 3 of this guidance for details on road designs for different terrains.)

The following case study illustrates some of the problems and associated costs that may occur due to poor road construction and design. These issues should be addressed in the planning and design phase.


Poor road siting and design resulted in concentrated runoff flows and heavy erosion that threatened several house foundations adjacent to the road. Sediment-laden runoff was also discharged into Herring Bay. To protect the Chesapeake Bay and the nearby houses, the county corrected the problem by installing diversions, a curb-and-drain urban runoff conveyance, and a rock wall filtration system, at a total cost of $100,000 (Munsey, 1992).

3. Management Measure Selection

This management measure was selected because it follows the approach to highway development recommended by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) guidance, and highway location and design guidelines used by the States of Virginia, Maryland, Washington, and others.

Additionally, AASHTO has location and design guidelines (AASHTO, 1990, 1991) available for State highway agency use that describe the considerations necessary to control erosion and highway-related pollutants. Federal Highway Administration policy (FHWA, 1991) requires that Federal-aid highway projects and highways constructed under direct supervision of the FHWA be located, designed, constructed, and operated according to standards that will minimize erosion and sediment damage to the highway and adjacent properties and abate pollution of surface water and ground-water resources.

4. Practices

As discussed more fully at the beginning of this chapter and in Chapter 1, the following practices are described for illustrative purposes only. State programs need not require implementation of these practices. However, as a practical matter, EPA anticipates that the management measure set forth above generally will be implemented by applying one or more management practices appropriate to the source, location, and climate. The practices set forth below have been found by EPA to be representative of the types of practices that can be applied successfully to achieve the management measure described above.

  • a. Consider type and location of permanent erosion and sediment controls (e.g., vegetated filter strips, grassed swales, pond systems, infiltration systems, constructed urban runoff wetlands, and energy dissipators and velocity controls) during the planning phase of roads, highway, and bridges. (AASHTO, 1991; Hartigan et al., 1989)

  • b. All wetlands that are within the highway corridor and that cannot be avoided should be mitigated. These actions will be subject to Federal Clean Water Act section 404 requirements and State regulations.

  • c. Assess and establish adequate setback distances near wetlands, waterbodies, and riparian areas to ensure protection from encroachment in the vicinity of these areas.

    Setback distances should be determined on a site-specific basis since several variables may be involved such as topography, soils, floodplains, cut-and-fill slopes, and design geometry. In level or gently sloping terrain, a general rule of thumb is to establish a setback of 50 to 100 feet from the edge of the wetland or riparian area and the right-of-way. In areas of steeply sloping terrain (20 percent or greater), setbacks of 100 feet or more are recommended. Right-of-way setbacks from major waterbodies (oceans, lakes, estuaries, rivers) should be in excess of 100 to 1000 feet.

  • d. Avoid locations requiring excessive cut and fill. (AASHTO, 1991)

  • e. Avoid locations subject to subsidence, sink holes, landslides, rock outcroppings, and highly erodible soils. (AASHTO, 1991; TRB, Campbell, 1988)

  • f. Size rights-of-way to include space for siting runoff pollution control structures as appropriate. (AASHTO, 1991; Hartigan, et al., 1989)

    Erosion and sediment control structures (extended detention dry ponds, permanent sediment traps, catchment basins, etc.) should be planned and located during the design phase and included as part of the design specifications to ensure that such structures, where needed, are provided within the highway right-of-way.

  • g. Plan residential roads and streets in accordance with local subdivision regulations, zoning ordinances, and other local site planning requirements (International City Managers Association, Model Zoning/Subdivision Codes). Residential road and street pavements should be designed with minimum widths.

    Local roads and streets should have right-of-way widths of 36 to 50 feet, with lane widths of 10 to 12 feet. Minimum pavement widths for residential streets where street parking is permitted range from 24 to 28 feet between curbs. In large-lot subdivisions (1 acre or more), grassed drainage swales can be used in lieu of curbs and gutters and the width of paved road surface can be between 18 and 20 feet.

  • h. Select the most economic and environmentally sound route location. (FHWA, 1991)

  • i. Use appropriate computer models and methods to determine urban runoff impacts with all proposed route corridors. (Driscoll, 1990)

    Computer models to determine urban runoff from streets and highways include TR-55 (Soil Conservation Service model for controlling peak runoff); the P-8 model to determine storage capacity (Palmstrom and Walker); the FHWA highway runoff model (Driscoll et al., 1990); and others (e.g., SWMM, EPA's stormwater management model; HSP continuous simulation model by Hydrocomp, Inc.).

  • j. Comply with National Environmental Policy Act requirements including other State and local requirements. (FHWA, T6640.8A)

  • k. Coordinate the design of pollution controls with appropriate State and Federal environmental agencies. (Maryland DOE, 1983)

  • l. Develop local official mapping to show location of proposed highway corridors.

    Official mapping can be used to reserve land areas needed for public facilities such as roads, highways, bridges, and urban runoff treatment devices. Areas that require protection, such as those which are sensitive to disturbance or development-related nonpoint source pollution, can be reserved by planning and mapping necessary infrastructure for location in suitable areas.

    5. Effectiveness Information and Cost Information

    The most economical time to consider the type and location of erosion, sediment, and NPS pollution control is early in the planning and design phase of roads and highways. It is much more costly to correct polluted runoff problems after a road or highway has already been built. The most effective and often the most economical control is to design roads and highways as close to existing grade as possible to minimize the area that must be cut or filled and to avoid locations that encroach upon adjacent watercourses and wet areas. However, some portions of roads and highways cannot always be located where NPS pollution does not pose a threat to surface waters. In these cases, the impact from potential pollutant loadings should be mitigated. Interactive computer models designed to run on a PC are available (e.g., FHWA's model, Driscoll et al., 1990) and can be used to examine and project the runoff impacts of a proposed road or highway design on surface waters. Where controls are determined to be needed, several cost-effective management practices, such as vegetated filter strips, grassed swales, and pond systems, can be considered and used to treat the polluted runoff. These mitigating practices are described in detail in the discussion on urban developments (Management Measure IV.A).

    Return to Previous Section
    Continue to Next Section
    Return to the Table of Contents

    Office of Wetlands, Oceans & Watersheds Home | Watershed Protection Home

    EPA Home | Office of Water | Search | Comments | Contacts
    This page last updated October 4, 1999