’tis the season.

While in Atlanta recently, I was notified of the beginning of a strange season. The overhead message board said something about Smog Season beginning April 1st. I don’t think Hallmark is behind this particular shopping season because I didn’t feel compelled to buy candy or feel guilty about not sending a card to my mom. The timing of the marketing was also off, being so close to Easter.

The sign made me wonder how long it will be until that particular message will seem outdated, or otherwise a thing of our past: evidence of a time when we simply didn’t know any better. Hopefully, one day, smog season will be like cigarette commercials and the household use of lead-based paint and asbestos.

I agree with the transparency and the attempt to bring awareness to environmental issues, but I wonder sometimes if the messaging simply gives an impression of an expected and permanent condition.

Last year I went for a run beside Rock Creek near Washington DC. It was beautiful. But just as I started to imagine the fun my family and I could have in such a pleasant setting, I passed the permanent sign warning would-be waders of the combined sewer system overflow element of the creek. Some loggers here in Alabama post caution signs stating: “MUD ON HIGHWAY” in attempt to relieve themselves of any responsibility for managing their work. Dump truck drivers tell us they are not responsible for our broken windshield. A sign in a Mississippi welcome center restroom asks us to pardon their “BROWN WATER.” Like the faded “WATER ON ROAD DURING RAIN” signs, sometimes I wonder if we are actively working on a fix, or did the actual fix come when the sign was posted and expectations were lowered.

Reading a bit and talking with folks who Experienced a real season of smog, those living in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and Birmingham today are much better off than they used to be. But according to the American Lung Association, breathing polluted air can still increase the risk of asthma attacks, chest pain, shortness of breath and other serious health risks. The statement is true regardless of how badly we used to suck.

Same with stormwater. We have come a long way. We are so much more effective today. But, stormwater is still the number one carrier of pollutants to our Nation’s waters. And its management is still somewhat of a conspiracy or joke to some in the development world. It would be much easier to simply declare a “Turbidity Season” (or as some already do –  “The Wet Season,” whatever that is). Or maybe post signs declaring “SEDIMENT IN CREEK,” and hope the general public and the benthos will simply understand and accept this inevitable cost of progress.

Marketing to bring awareness to an issue, and to solicit assistance in mitigating that issue seems appropriate to me. Marketing as notice of our having given up shouldn’t be accepted in lieu of continued movement toward environmental excellence.

(To be fair, Atlanta’s Smog Season campaign seems to be more in line with the former rather than the latter.)


From the Urban Dictionary: Same – used to show that you agree with someone or just after anything someone else has just said.

I learned the response from my teenagers. The interaction goes something like this -

Dad: Wow, what a beautiful day. I love early springtime, especially when the Dogwood blooms start peeking out from the emerging foliage in the woods. It gets me excited knowing that warmer weather is finally here.
Teenager: Same (slowly nodding her head in agreement).                        

By her tone, mannerisms, and by first assuming positive intent, I’m pretty sure she genuinely agrees with my assessment of the pleasantness of the day and of the season. Her texting, tweeting, hash-tagging culture is simply conditioning her to speak in concise bites. There are some lessons there for stormwater professionals.

Communication is THE best management practice. Two of the most prevalent forms of communication in our world are in written and spoken form. Clear, concise, and relevant information is always preferred over fuzzy, bloated, rabbit trails when it comes to communicating work status or conveying expectations.  Sometimes stating “satisfactory” is, well, satisfactory, in terms of reporting. At other times, more information is needed.

I have been a part of discussions recently related to a suit where inspectors were criticized for not highlighting positives and corrections along with deficiencies in their reporting. I generally agree with the concept of documenting when repairs are made. But the fact is, the main goal of regulatory inspection is to discover and report problems. Sure, the process can be used as a means to prepare a case to defend yourself, but that can be distracting. Our purpose in reporting is not to spend the day filling out paperwork. It is to communicate which and when things need to be corrected.

One way to make the reporting process less time consuming is to keep it succinct. Maintenance – baffles in sediment basin #5; Implementation – runon at cut slope sta 215+00 rt; Implementation – topsoil, seeding and RECP at sw corner; etc.

If there is time, corrections can also be documented, after the fact: Corrected – basin #5 baffles; Diversion swale installed at 215+00 rt; Vegetation emerging at sw corner; or in real time:  Directional bore pit dewatering caused turbid discharge into creek [corrected by 2pm].

clear, concise messaging

clear, concise messaging

Knowing your audience and understanding what is appropriate and important for them and for the situation is key – communication is what the listener does.

So if you ever find yourself wondering whether your reports, letters, emails, comments, and blog posts are not being completely read or understood because you are a bit too chatty for the situation -



B-T-dubs (that means btw, or by-the-way),  If you’re interested in getting to the essentials of any message, try giving yourself a word budget and sticking to it. The habit has helped me with writing letters, emails, reports, and even mission and vision statements. I ask guest posters to shoot for between 400 and 600 words on StormwaterTools.com.  My personal goal is 500 words for each post. This one is clocked at exactly 500.



TS4 – a term sometimes used to describe a municipal separate storm sewer permit addressing urban discharges from transportation facilities. Its not a term used officially by EPA or supported by law, but it does get thrown around a lot.

State DOTs are in a unique position. They have typically been seen as co-permittees with the “real MS4s.” That arrangement works fine until the auditors come knocking and wondering why the DOT hasn’t checked all of the same boxes the municipality has. The tension and ridiculousness of what follows can truly be unbelievable. The awkward situation places the DOT and the regulator in a position for collaboration. They can now choose to explore solutions together, or not.

I have had the pleasure of working with and learning from several state DOTs about the implementation or the prospect of having an individual MS4 permit. I shared the following advice with the last state DOT I worked with. It is based on my own experience as well as the experiences of others.

  • A DOT is NOT a municipality.
    • In my opinion, a DOT just barely falls into the category of needing permit coverage.
    • The land use is different (and fairly uniform); the runoff constituents are different; the authority to regulate is different; the mission is different.
    • The point seems obvious, but many regulators and even some DOT employees don’t get the distinction at first.
    • The statement has to be said early and often during permit discussions.
  • A DOT should not commit to doing anything that it is either unable or unwilling to do.
    • Being unwilling seems harsh, but DOTs are asked to do things that simply are not in their interest or within their budget.
    • Like others have discovered, it is very difficult to back up on commitments, even if they are later found to be unreasonable.
    • The conversation boundaries should stay within regulatory boundaries (urban areas).  Statewide application is available later, but the intent of the law is to address urban runoff.
  • The DOT should take credit for ongoing positive work.
    • DOTs are doing good things for urban runoff.
    • Existing efforts should be used as leverage to eliminate things that don’t make sense.
    • DOTs should plan to always do more than what is required on paper.
  • Include the entire team.
    • MS4 responsibilities involve construction, maintenance, design, public relations, design, and others.
    • A single person or office should be careful with negotiating or making commitments on behalf of other areas of responsibility.
  • The goal of any MS4 program should be to have  a positive impact on the environment.
    • All obligations should be agreed to with this in mind.
    • Not all requirements will have clear environmental benefits.  Either eliminate those that don’t, or modify them until they do.
  • Keep as many of the specifics as possible in the management plan.
    • The plan is more flexible and informal than the permit.
    • The plan can and should be modified to fit the capabilities and gained knowledge over time.

To sum up generally; work within the bounds of reality; do meaningful things; do not agree to things you can’t do; and take credit for the good things you currently do.

Any tips to add?  Join the discussion in the municipal discharge (CMS4S) subgroup of EnviroCert.


On Being Naïve

Just because I’m not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me

One of the most confirming periods of my career resulted from having my character attacked. In a single week a couple of years ago I was labled naïve by representatives of two intense personalities on completely opposite ends of the socio-political environmental spectrum.

The first situation involved a person with extreme (and misguided) environmental views regarding work I was a part of. This “keeper” of a local stream was convinced of conspiracies, cover-ups, and intentions that I knew were not true. His position stemmed from his personal experience, bias, personality, and instincts. My position was based on similar personal factors (I am also human). But my base started with an initial assumption of positive intent – there was no concocted scheme to destroy the planet.

The environmental advocate wasn’t able to provide evidence that would convince me that the people involved were all bad. I failed to convince him of their general desire to do right things.  He reconciled the disagreement by deciding that I was simply too naïve to understand. I left the conversation wondering if he might be correct (but not too concerned about it – I had been called worse… by him, actually).

A part of an attorney’s role is to advise clients on matters that represent risk. Some lawyers can be so risk averse that communication and collaboration, two things that are so vital to our success, are rarely considered as viable solutions. I absolutely appreciate the role of an attorney, but as you may have guessed from my ramblings, attorneys and I don’t always see eye-to-eye. Our thoughts on open and honest communication are typically quite different.

A few days after my discussion with the nervous environmental advocate, I was discussing plans for future outreach with a group that included attorneys. The attorneys quickly began looking out for my interests by probing and warning me of the dangers of unchecked transparency. They were advising me from a position influenced by education, training, and duty. We couldn’t convince each other of our approaches to expectation management.

They came from a place of personal experience, bias, personality, and instincts (they are also human), and so did I. But again, I chose to first assume positive intent – not all environmental advocates are itching to sue me. The attorneys could not provide evidence to the contrary.

It didn’t hit me until a few days later that a few individuals on completely opposite ends of the political and social spectrum, who likely couldn’t sit in the same room without throwing up, had one common position - Barry is naïve.  I had finally arrived.

I cannot do my job without connecting with people. Ours can be a somewhat technical world, but how we treat people matters most. Influence requires some level of relationship – we must be willing to hang out with those who can potentially change the direction or outcomes of our work. That is reality.

Assuming positive intent first, is one easy way to get us closer to recognizing reality. I also think having faith in the general goodness of people leads to a happier and longer life… but maybe that’s just me being naïve.


Dancing with the Rain

There is something about being in the woods that restores my soul. And the deeper into the woods the better. I like sleeping outside.  I enjoy living in a tent every once in a while. I enjoy people, but I also appreciate getting away – either by myself, or with a few friends and family. I also enjoy the sound of rain… as long as it’s on my terms.

I don’t like the sound, or feel, or smell of rain on a camping trip. There isn’t much more miserable for me than living among wet and soggy clothes, bedding, and crackers. I don’t mind being cold, but being cold and wet stinks for me.

Apparently not so much for my son and his friends. I took a few of them camping recently and it rained nearly the entire 3-day weekend. They hiked and explored, canoed and kayaked, and almost kept a  fire burning continuously. They were as cold and wet as me and the crackers, but it didn’t stop them from enjoying the first few days of their spring break. One happily declared that we weren’t camping, we were tarping! They mostly slept in ENOs with individual tarp coverings, but also pieced together a decent community area surrounding my tent.eno camping

While the boys were out in their newly adopted element, I read, contemplated and enjoyed the peace of it all. As the rain subsided on Monday, I was able to get in a few runs with them as our gear dried for an easy break down later. It really wasn’t a bad weekend.

While watching the boys stand in a drizzle around the fire, I thought about us stormwater people. How many of us have actually seen our work being tested under the conditions for which it was designed? The normal response to rain is to seek shelter. But if your job is to manage rain and its runoff, you have already left the “normal” station. Why would we not get out in it?

We often seem surprised by the rain . We tell ourselves and others that if it hadn’t been so wet lately, or if last night’s rain had not caught us off-guard, we could have kept all of that sediment on site. We act as if we actually thought the rain would have ceased until we finished. We sometimes seem to be in denial about the very thing that keeps us employed.

The fact is, it is going to rain. We call ourselves experts in erosion “control” and sediment “control,” but even we don’t have the arrogance think we can control the rain. We know it’s coming whether we like it or not. The sooner we accept, and study, and innovate, and play in and with a full understanding that the rain is coming, the more effective we will be.

We really have no other choice than to embrace the rain. Besides, choosing to be wet and cold feels different than getting wet and cold on someone else’s terms. It’s kind of like choosing change rather than being forced. Commitment and compliance may lead to the same place, but each have completely different psychological effects.



Functional Fixedness

Candle Problem“The Candle Problem” was devised by psychologist Karl Duncker in the 1930′s. In the problem a table is placed against a wall. The participant is given materials shown in Diagram A: a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches. The goal is to attach the candle to the wall in a manner that prevents wax from falling on the table. Take a moment to think about your solution.


Most unsuccessful attempts involved trying to stick the candle to the wall with wax and/or tacks. The approach simply does not work. But after a few minutes, most people discover the solution (HERE) - the box holding the tacks becomes a candle-holder that can easily be attached to the wall.

Dunker decided that the problem was that participants became “fixated” on the box only serving as a container for tacks. Follow up experiments by Dunker and others showed that when the box and tacks were separated, people were much more likely to see the box as one of the materials available to solve the problem.

Stormwater professionals can also become fixated on function. With available space coming at a premium in a transportation setting or commercial development, we still refuse to see roadside ditches as being anything other than open-channel conveyances. We see mandatory tree wells and traffic islands as nothing more than surface plant containers. We see rooftop and parking lot runoff as nothing more than a by-product that must be “managed” or disposed of regardless of cost. We assumed that level spreaders and detention basins are only for reducing the peak discharge and energy of runoff. In construction, sediment basins are only for treating turbidity, vegetated buffers are only for trapping sediment. Sidewalks are only for walking.

We are often correct when we say we don’t have enough room or budget to adequately treat stormwater, when added to to all of the other functions our project must serve. But what if somehow we could combine functions, or create elements of infrastructure that are multi-use? Permeable sidewalks could reduce runoff; deep tillage under roadside ditches and slopes could promote pollutant capture; sediment basin bottoms could be managed to infiltrate turbid water; level spreaders could serve a construction function as well as post construction; detained runoff could buffer rates of discharge and sustain landscaping. That is the very definition of green infrastructure.

Green infrastructure created solely for the purpose of creating green infrastructure isn’t green infrastructure.

An interesting fact – when tested, 5-year-old children show no signs of functional fixedness. For some reason, we develop boundaries and our ideas become limited as we “grow up.” A career involving dirt and water has always been very close to child’s play for me. The challenge of finding new ways to utilize old elements in our projects can also be fun – almost as satisfying as playing with Legos.

But, if we must insist on being adults and calling it work, please remember that our clients, employers, customers, taxpayers, and society are all counting on us to create better solutions. Whether we have fun or not is really not their concern.


Daniel Pink’s book Drive led me to Dunker’s work and application of the concept of functional fixedness.


Conscious Incompetence

The “conscious competence” learning model was developed in the 1970′s to describe four stages of learning any new skill. The stages are roughly laid out as:
unconscious incompetence – when we don’t know that we don’t know how;
conscious incompetence – when we know that we don’t know how;
conscious competence – when we know how, but it takes concentration to pull it off; and
unconscious competence – when we know how and do it without thinking, it is now essentially automatic.

Naturally, we stormwater professionals are sitting at different stages of competence in different areas, depending on our experience, knowledge, and mindset. Obviously, when we get to unconscious competence, we can go searching for other areas where we need to improve (where we are unconsciously incompetent).

The second stage, or conscious incompetence, seems to me to be the most defining and potentially the most harmful for us. The goal of learning a new skill is getting to the next stage. When we are fully aware that what we are doing isn’t working, and we decide to sit (as we do in so many ways), the learning and progress through the four stages of competence stops.

But we can also choose a different reaction to the discovery of incompetence. Getting better is all about knowing what we don’t know… and acting on that knowledge. Change is the only thing that can get us to competence. We must keep adjusting until we find the right way, then get better.

You know for a fact that some of your work isn’t effective. But you do it anyway – for the client, for the regulator, for the sake of “compliance,” to just get through the day. We often do ineffective things, at an incredible resource cost (time, energy, money), to please people we know aren’t as knowledgeable as us about the topic. Insanity anyone?

We will always carry a gap within us between what we know to be right and what we actually do. Our goal should be to narrow that gap at every available opportunity. Freeing up resources to focus on what we don’t know is best done through getting to the point where other right things become second nature.


I learned a bit about conscious competence from HBR Ideacast 451: Be Less Reactive and More Proactive. An easy search for the subject gives plenty more detail if you are interested.

Municipal or Urban

Some friends and I have been discussing the differences between the terms urban and municipal as they relate to stormwater (ok, its nerdy, but you knew that when you signed up).

The term, municipal, has a nice familiar ring to it. And when connected to stormwater, there is an unmistakable relationship between land use associated with city-life and the quality of waters that receive city runoff. We didn’t realize the significance of that connection in 1972 as Congress was declaring our National water quality goals. As the deadlines for those goals approached then passed, it was clear that big industry, waste water treatment plants, and other point sources weren’t the only problems. The National Urban Runoff Program (1978-1983) revealed some staggering truths about the type of water that ran quickly out of our cities. Amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987 caused EPA to address municipal runoff as a pollutant source.

Regulatory language and permit and program titles took on the term, municipal, and haven’t changed much since. From the start, the term addressed more than just stormwater discharges within political districts. Like the flow of water itself, regulation didn’t completely respect imaginary lines created by government. But, we all understand what the acronym MS4 represents – runoff from urban areas. The actual words making up the acronym can be a bit tricky and require a deeper knowledge of the history of stormwater regulation in the US, but we all know why MS4 regulations exist and are all familiar with the pollutants and land use they address.

Summarized from Wikipedia -

  1. A municipality is usually an urban administrative division having corporate status and usually powers of self-government or jurisdiction.
  2. An urban area is a location characterized by high human population density and vast human-built features in comparison to the areas surroundings.

So as we discuss MS4 waters, must we stick to comfortable and convenient terms used in regulation (currently and historically)? Or, as professionals, would it be acceptable or wise to think beyond the language of EPA, or Congress, or the most current set of rules we have in front of us? Would it be helpful or harmful to shift our thinking and our talking to a language that better fits what we are discussing? If we are only focused on what happens inside of city boundaries, municipal fits. If we are focused on population density and the infrastructure that supports it, maybe municipal is too small of a term.

My friends and I agree that the language we use can impact how we work and how our work is perceived. We agree that our views can be limited or expanded by the language we use.

I had originally intended for this post to present both terms from an unbiased perspective. I am pretty sure I failed and you know where I sit. I do have an opinion here, but it is the opinion of one person with a relatively small set of experiences and information. I am very open to hearing your thoughts and am usually willing to shift my thinking in the interest of water quality based on solid discussion.

We would love to get your take on our collective use of these two terms. If you like urban, are you bothered by the term, municipal? If you are a fan of municipal, what would happen if your peers, all of a sudden, started using the term, urban? Would that be confusing or threatening, or stupid? or would you eventually shift also?

When you speak of stormwater from population centers, what term do you use?

Let us know – Municipal, Urban, something else? Why?


This question is already posted at the EnviroCert International LinkedIn discussion group. Please weigh in here or there.  Thanks.

Laudator Temporis Acti

The great philosopher Billy Joel once said, the good ole days weren’t always good, and tomorrow aint as bad as it seems. I am quite fond of the quote and have reached back to it for the last 25 years or so.(1)

The Latin term for the anitithesis of one who subscribes to Billy Joel’s line of thinking is laudator temporis acti. It translates, praiser of times past.(2)

Another favorite phrase of mine from an unknown author is, if it’s stupid and it works, it’s not stupid. I particularly like this one because of it’s corollary – if it appears to be smart but doesn’t work, it’s not smart.(3)

When Congress created the Clean Water Act and set goals for the quality of our National waters(4), they likely didn’t have a clue how we might achieve those goals. But they trusted that American engineering, innovation, creativity, and hard work would get us there before the set deadlines.  They were wrong. We let them down.

The well-intended EPA led and continues to lead us along a path of applying tried and true approaches of times past to this very complex problem. In many ways, the approach worked. The quality of our land, air, and water today is much better than it was 50 years ago. However, we have nearly reached the limits of what hard engineering, prescriptive regulation, and factory-like compliance can do for us. The easy problems have been solved; a society that was born and raised on those principles has changed; the remaining problems are complex, diffuse, and in many cases, not even technical.

To finish this up, we must think differently about different things. We must recognize that what once appeared to be smart and may have been effective to an extent, is no longer working for us.

A few alternatives to consider as we refocus – effectiveness over compliance; consensus over compromise; how we behave over how we practice; autonomy, mastery, and purpose over carrot and stick.(5)



(1) Yes, it has been that long. And yes, we are getting old.

(2) I don’t mean to pretend I know Latin. Three solid references helped me with this – my wife, my daughter, and Wikipedia.

(3) I made that one up.

(4) Goals from 33 U.S. Code § 1251  – the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985; the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and …recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.

(5) autonomy, mastery, and purpose from the book, Drive by Daniel Pink, subtitle – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Buddy the Connector

Buddy, my friend and mentor and coach and partner-in-crime for the past 13 years or so died in a farming accident last Saturday. I claim him but he actually served many roles for many people. 086

Buddy and I approached, debated, and solved problems (“opportunities” as he called them) together. We didn’t always agree on everything initially. But if we decided to solve a problem together, we were in full agreement with one another before we started – arriving at consensus over compromise most of the time. “The Buddy and Barry Show” worked well. Sometimes he let me play good cop, and sometimes we were so in synch it scared us both. On his lead, we tried our best to help others arrive at solutions that considered, accommodated, and balanced the needs of people, the environment, and the interests of our employer. Buddy taught me that how we treat people matters.

Buddy was valued more than he was appreciated. His input was solicited time after time by his critics. I enjoyed seeing those who didn’t always care for his call-it-like-you-see-it style not dare budge without at least hearing from him first. They could act against his counsel, but knew they did so at their own risk (and they also knew that Buddy would be around  to clean up the mess later if things went sideways).

He was quite a bit older than me when he died but it didn’t seem to matter. Neither did race, gender, social or organizational status, or whether we were frustrated or on fire when he called. He came to us wherever we sat. And he kept coming. He called me weekly. He called others less frequently. Some daily. He didn’t call to tell us what was going on. He came to hear. If he did happen to have an ask, it came last – after he heard that we were ok and he was sure there was nothing else he could do for us right now.

Most of Buddy’s beneficiaries didn’t work directly for or above him. We had nothing to offer him. His connection with us was completely for our sake, not his.

Seth Godin talks about the benefits of connection and the value of connectors. The type of connector described by Godin, is not a socialite or busy-body. Valued connectors of today connect us with ideas, with innovation, with solutions, with pride, and confidence, and wisdom, and with each other… again, for our sake, not their own. Neither Buddy nor Seth Godin likely knew that particular definition of connector when Buddy became one.

Our connector, Buddy, is gone. But because of the type of connector Buddy was, his connections are as alive as ever. We can’t return connection with Buddy, nor can we thank him while we are still here. However, we can fill his role. He set a fine example for us. One of his greatest legacies might be in how he influenced us to also connect with others… not for our sake, but for theirs.DSCN2133

You likely don’t know Buddy. But you know someone like him. Watch the them closely. Connectors are easy to spot but are not easy to emulate. They are the most valuable and probably the most under-appreciated people you have on your team. Watch them and be ready. They may not be around forever.

Please keep Bernard “Buddy” Cox’s family and friends in your thoughts and prayers this week. We will be struggling to fill some huge gaps in our shaken world.