The Ratcheting Environmental Pendulum

I have been warned by some that we are currently living a ramped-up and trumped-up environmental fad that is sure to ease up as soon as the current administration is packed up and shipped off (pick your favorite “administration” to apply the statement to). I hear that our efforts to improve water quality are breaking the bank, the organization, and/or the country. I see comments inferring or directly stating that the time for the Clean Water Act is long behind us – we have cleaned up the targeted waters of the 43 year-old law and it’s time to move on.

I agree that there is a political pendulum that swings in the environmental world. Pick any topic with opponents and proponents divided by politics and you will see the same effect on emphasis and priority played out in society based on which party happens to be in control at the time. In the past, I have shared my thoughts on the enviro-political pendulum when I thought it was necessary or beneficial. I have conceded that there is a pendulum, but also offered the concept that the base of that pendulum is on a continual drift toward a healthier environment – driven mostly by us.

Reading Seth Godin’s recent post on The Technology Ratchet, makes me consider a different type of movement for the ever-swinging pendulum (take a second to read Seth’s post, I’ll wait). In the post, Godin states that any adopted useful technology will never be abandoned. He offers the example of air-conditioning as something we never take out once installed. HVAC units become more efficient and easier to use, but artificially controlled humidity and temperature, fortunately, are here to stay.

Also by good fortune, the same is true for environmental protection and restoration. The first environmental legislation in the US was enacted in 1899. From that point forward, it has never been acceptable to our society to pollute our waters so thick that interstate commerce and transportation is hindered. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (after the introduction of over 100 unsuccessful bills) reflected that society finally understood that pollution crossing state boundaries was indeed a matter of national importance and not just one that the states should individually sort out. The Clean Water Act Amendments of 1972, the amendments of 1987, the recent Clean Water Rule… all representing not just a drift, but rather a one-way ratcheting toward cleaner water.

None of these regulatory cog clicks were perfect. None were completely accepted by everyone. All were inefficient. Some were seen, I’m sure, as being an “unlawful expansion of federal authority” over state’s rights. However, all represented an almost irreversible movement toward cleaner US waters – is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Regardless of how we feel about the need for cleaner water, our efforts toward either hurrying the rate of progression towards it or slowing it down should at least be informed by the knowledge that going backwards is not an option. I think most would actually agree with that statement, regardless of their current political bent.

The Clean Water Rule

I am still somewhat fascinated by the political nature of filed lawsuits and general fury caused by the new rule defining waters of the United States. A final draft was added to the Federal Register on June 29, 2015. The rule will be effective on August 28, 2015 unless one of the suits changes that.

Even among stormwater professionals, there still seems to be gross misunderstanding and fear of the potential impacts of the clarifying rule. As I sort out the elements of the rule that most affect my work, mainly stormwater management and ditches, I thought I would share my interpretations with you. Here we go.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) discusses “navigable waters” which might indicate only those waters that can be navigated. However, it defines those navigable waters as, “waters of the United States” which reaches beyond waters that can accommodate a boat. Another clue regarding Congress’ intent related to the influence of smaller waters is the stated purpose of the law – “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” National water quality goals of pollutant elimination and restoration of our “Nation’s waters” were also included.

What’s Regulated

The new definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) generally includes eight different types of waters. I will call them “jurisdictional.” The first three I’ll call “core waters.”
(1) waters used (past, present, or future) for interstate or foreign commerce (waters connected the exchange of money),
(2) interstate waters and wetlands (crossing state boundaries),
(3) territorial seas (coastal waters up to about 14 miles from the coast),
(4) impoundments of jurisdictional waters,
(5) tributaries of core waters,
(6) all waters adjacent to the waters listed above (1-5 waters),
(7) special waters – Prairie potholes, Carolina bays and Delmarva bays, Pocosins, Western vernal pools, and Texas coastal prairie wetlands, and
(8) other proximity waters (my term) - waters within the 100-year floodplain of a core water and waters within 4,000 feet of the high tide mark or ordinary highwater mark (OHWM) of core waters and their impoundments and tributaries, with a significant nexus to a core water (waters 1-3).

The terms tributary and tributaries are defined as waters with bed, banks, and a OHWM characteristics that contribute flow to a core water.

The term adjacent is defined as bordering, contiguous, or neighboring. Neighboring is defined as all portions of a water with a portion of the water: within 100 feet of the OHWM of a 1-5 water; within 1,500 feet of OHWN and the 100-year floodplain; or within 1,500 feet of the OHWM of the Great Lakes.

The term significant nexus means waters and wetlands that significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of a core water. Functions relevant to significant nexus evaluation are: sediment trapping, nutrient recycling, pollutant management and transport, retention and attenuation of flood waters, runoff storage, contribution of flow, export of organic matter, export of food resources, and provision of life cycle dependent aquatic habitat.

What’s not Regulated

One of the most positive aspects of the rule, in addition to the increased clarity, is the fairly detailed list of exclusions, or waters that are not considered to be jurisdictional. These waters are NOT waters of the US, even if they meet the definition and have characteristics of those waters listed above. Excluded waters include: groundwater; waste treatment systems and wastewater recycling structures; prior converted croplands, farm ponds, French drains, and irrigated areas; small and artificial features such as pools and fountains, industrial and construction-related basins, lakes, and ponds; and puddles (clearly to dispel the propaganda claiming that EPA is now regulating mud puddles).

The rule also clearly states that stormwater features constructed to “convey, treat, or store stormwater” that are created in dry land, are excluded from jurisdiction. This modification of earlier drafts addresses the concern of many that the new rule could set back gains in the development of LID approaches and disincentivize green infrastructure. I still have a hint of concern in regards to the “constructed in dry land” statement. I will consider dry land to be that area not defined as a water or wetland and remember that groundwater is specifically excluded also.

While this specific exclusion does not cover roadside ditches, they are also addressed specifically in another paragraph. The rule states that the agencies do not expect the scope of ditches excluded to be different regardless of the use (including stormwater control) as there is little practical need to distinguish between the two.

The rule excludes ditches with ephemeral flow that were not excavated in tributaries.  It excludes those with intermittent flows that were not excavated in tributaries and do not drain wetlands. Ditches with perennial flow are considered waters of the state. Regarding ditches with intermittent flows and the  draining wetlands determination, this will require case-by-case assessment to determine intersection and flow characteristics of upstream and downstream portions of the ditch. I suspect we will see additional agency guidance for field personnel on this topic.

As a matter of fact, I expect that we will see internal agency guidance over the next few months that will give us more insight into the increases or decreases of regulatory burden on the regulated. I am hopeful however. I didn’t like where and how we were trending regarding some of these elements before the rule. Hopefully, the supplemental implementation guidance will retain the stated intent of EPA officials to clarify and streamline as they continue to administer the Clean Water Act.

I would enjoy getting your take as well.  Comment below.

The rule and other supporting information can be viewed HERE.





If it’s not on paper, it didn’t happen.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference where a panel of state and federal regulators provided updates on MS4 programs in a few states. The theme appeared to be a state-of-each-state, sharing current progress and current challenges of each state’s MS4 program.

Paperwork, including forms, annual reports, permits, modification documentation (“many are changing their programs without permission”) was the overriding topic of the day, filling both the good and bad parts of each update. I heard from more than one, “if its not on paper, it didn’t happen.” Another said, “our main focus is this backlog of permits.” Really? That’s our main focus? I found myself bothered by the obvious absence of discussion of water quality.  Unfortunately, I was selected first as the floor was opened to questions.

My comment/question went something like this, even though its all a blur at this point - “Hearing the good and bad aspects of our programs, If I didn’t know better; if I just walked in off the street, I might have a distorted view of our priorities. My question is, given our administrative focus and paper driven program, is urban water quality getting better, is it getting worse, or do we even know?”

As the responses rolled off the panel, my temporary ignorance was erased. It became very clear to me that I hadn’t just poked a bear, I had poked a whole den of them. I had personally incensed more than one and offended our entire bureaucratic heritage. I was in trouble.

I took the rebuttal as it came, even though I don’t think any of it really addressed my concern. I had said way too much already. As I snuck to my next session where I would now be on stage, some whispered appreciation for and agreement with the sentiment and others just looked at me as if I was stupid crazy. I panicked as most of the panelists filed into the room with me. I assumed it was payback time. Luckily, at least two of them fell asleep and the others limited any negative reactions to eye-rolling.

I’m happy to report that my state rep reinforced during her report her expectation that monitoring data actually be used to inform action, rather than monitoring for the sake of monitoring. Unfortunately, I didn’t give her credit for this statement during my public comment, so she took it later in our private conversation. (I also found out during my presentation that she absolutely hates the phrase, check-the-box, even when its not directed at her.)

So as we prepare for our now-impending audit of our MS4 program(no-kidding), I continue to emphasize effectiveness over compliance. The way I see it, if we are running a truly effective program, compliance will come along collaterally. Checking boxes should never be our main focus. And the old saying, “if its not documented, it didn’t happen,” well, I know for a fact that its not true. Action trumps documentation any day.

Leader or Lone Nut?

“He who leadeth but hath no followers is only taking a walk.”

Different versions of this quote have come to me over the years as I have tried to heed it’s warning. Leadership isn’t about the intent of the one. It’s about the actions of the many. I have concluded that you and I are in leadership settings most of the time, regardless of how good we may be at it. We have an obligation to lead regardless of where we sit or what the circumstances may be. We have something good to offer in most settings and keeping our influence to ourselves can be downright irresponsible.

I have also considered the opposite of the quote. Something like, “regardless of their intention, the person at the front of the pack is a leader” (I couldn’t translate that into a King James version). Accidental leaders are still leaders. Leadership has existed since before it was technically recognized. A Google search for the term, leadership results in over 467 million matches. A book search at reveals over 145,000 results. I am certain John Maxwell didn’t come up with the concept on his own. We can find leadership happening in typical and unexpected places, and we see leaders coming with traditional titles and roles; and some are leading with no formal authority or expectation. Leadership can be in alignment with the interests of an organization, project or society, and it can also promote negative or harmful things.

Look around you. Are you in a position of leadership? Look at that again - not have you been officially placed and paid to serve with a title of leadership, but are there others who are counting on you to contribute and influence the outcome? Are you fulfilling that mission? Is there anyone following you, or are you simply taking a walk?

Study your surroundings again, forgetting your obligations or intentions to lead. Are there people walking with you or behind you voluntarily or accidentally? Congratulations… By chance are nudging them in the right direction?

Sometimes our most effective contribution cannot be delivered from the “top” of the organizational structure. Sometimes our most productive influence is given from behind the scenes in support of those with official leadership titles. Sometimes we lead from within the pack. Sometimes we lead from the bottom of the organization. Leadership is simply influence, regardless of where it comes from.

This short Ted talk by Derek Sivers explores and demonstrates how the “first follower” can keep the leader from becoming a “lone nut.” Enjoy.




Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

The first three habits move us from dependence to independence – taking responsibility for ourselves and our work, becoming accountable in all things and getting our own houses in order.  Habits 4 – 6 bring us to a mindset of communication and collaboration, or interdependence - realizing that the contributions of others, added to our work, increase our effectiveness. Now we must take time to sharpen the saw.

This habit speaks directly to my personal essential intent*. My personal desire to get better every day is reflected in the focus of stormwater programs and projects of my employer** and also influences how I want to help others. My essential intent of promoting awareness and purpose, encouraging accountability, and spurring action among water quality professionals is all about getting better every day.

Getting better every day also applies outside of technical knowledge and skill and on the weekends. Sharpening the saw is bigger than continuing education or professional development. Covey guides us to preserve, enhance, and renew “the four dimensions” of our nature – physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. He teaches that sharpening the saw makes all the other habits possible.

Finding time to get better in all for dimensions can be difficult. It takes a focused desire to move forward in all areas and permission to remain flexible. I run when I can because I want to live as long as I can. If I’m tired or sore, it’s ok to be slow. If I cant, I cant.  It’s ok. I read because it expands my perspective. The average millionaire in America reads one non-fiction book per month. I’m not a millionaire, so I read when I can. My salvation doesn’t depend on church attendance, but I go as often as I can because its good spiritually for me, my family, and my community. My nature is not a social one, but I engage with people when I can because I know deep down that I need others, and I also happen to believe that happiness [is] only real when shared.***

This was the seventh (really the eighth) and last post of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to stormwater management. I hope you have enjoyed walking back through the Seven Habits with me and you might take time to run back through all of the posts beginning with the initial post on habit. Thanks to my very busy sister for suggesting the topic.

Habits aren’t easy to form or easy to change, but then again, neither are most other good things in life.



*Greg Mckeown does a great job of describing essential intent in Chapter 10 of his book, Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

**The website name, was no accident.

***The last words of Christopher McCandless as quoted in, Into the Wild by John Krakauer.




Habit 6: Synergize

Ok, I don’t care for the term either. I can easily imagine a Saturday Night Live skit with a stereotypical career coach (Will Ferrell  would play the part rather than Chris Farley, in case you were thinking of motivational speaker, Matt Foley).  Characters would sit around ineffectively preaching to each other using terms and phrases like, out-of-the-box, 24/7, Six Sigma, ‘A’-game, Web 2.0, and of course, synergy. I’m not sure where the punch line comes in, but I’m not sure that is a requirements in all of SNL’s work.

Synergy may be one of the most overused words in business, but it’s root meaning and origin should not be ignored.

Synergy, simply put, means working together. The meaning reminds me of a definition my friends and I at the Collaborative Environmental Network of Alabama came up with for collaboration – choosing to explore solutions together.

Covey claims that synergy is “the essence of principle-centered leadership.” He teaches the common, and again, overused meaning - “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Obviously, our best work is usually enhanced by and through the influence and direct contribution of others. There is a reason communication is considered to be THE Best Management practice and is ranked as the first of the Five Pillars of Construction Stormwater Management. When effective communication happens, relationships form, minds become aligned toward common goals, and thinking and prioritization cause good things to happen. That’s synergy.

Synergistic effort can be exciting. The satisfaction and reward come mainly because it’s hard. The mere thought of leaning on others for our own success is a bit scary. Covey describes levels of communication with a diagram showing synergistic communication requiring a combination of high trust and high cooperation. At the opposite end of the continuum is defensive communication, with only win/lose or lose/win outcomes. Maintaining low trust and low cooperation is an option. Both minimums are easy to live and feel safe initially. However, neither move us toward achieving our goals and both could render us irrelevant as the advancing and unpredictable world passes us by.


covey levels


Synergy often leads to an unexpected third alternative – one that is better than either of you could have come up with on your own.


In other words (from my van down by the river), as you are evaluating your core competencies, trying to take it to the next level, and looking for low hanging fruitat the end of the day, it’s all about pushing the envelope, scalability, and giving 110%. To go viral, a robust paradigm shift is in order.  ROI matters and SEO is impactful. It is what it is. And always remember to sharpen the saw, which is the next and final habit of highly effective people.  See you next week.



Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Empathy is a critical element to interdependence and collaboration. Seeking to understand requires intense listening which informs empathy. Too often, we go ahead and create a person’s story without even knowing them. We make huge decisions and take significant actions based on uninformed assumptions. There is a remote chance that our assumptions can be correct based on some type of knowledge, from our own experience or the shared experience of others. But, I think, we are incorrect more often than not when it comes to judging people and their motives.

A larger benefit of understanding first may be in how the act affects your partner. In my bureaucratic world of state government, many of our customers are pre-convinced that a battle must be fought in order to be heard, much less be understood. There is usually very little hope in their interests being considered (again, based on experience, their assumption may be correct).

So when I decide to hear them out, or better yet, actually become interested in their circumstance, tension starts to ease and doors begin to open. They not only begin to accept me as human, but also start to see that there could be a legitimate reason for us to deny their request as submitted. We begin to be understood – not by seeking to be understood, but by first seeking to understand.

Again, it is very difficult to influence someone we are not willing to hang out with.DSCN0959

Habit Five sits at the heart of your community of influence. It involves the act of influence, but doesn’t start with an outward projection of my need to influence. It starts with an acknowledgement that I do not know everything, and a desire to make decisions using the best available information. Seeking first to understand enables us to work with accurate information, it gets us to the heart of matters more quickly, it kindles unlikely but productive relationships, and it gives others space to rethink negative and incorrect perceptions about us.

Habit Five feels a bit risky if you happen to not be into growing. If you have it all figured out already, Habit Five is probably not for you. There is a very good chance that placing yourself in the position of listener might actually get you influenced. Covey reminds us, “being influenceable is the key to influencing others.”

Of course we get to decide. We can sit with ourselves, right where we sit. Or, we can choose to explore solutions with others and see where we end up. The latter sounds more fun to me.


This is the fifth of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleto stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win

There are many players in the world of stormwater and many varied interests. The owner needs a completed and functioning project; the engineer and inspector need work performed in accordance with the plan; the contractor needs a profit; the regulator needs compliance; and ultimately, the water needs protection. So is it reasonable to believe that a win/win/win/win/win can ever take place? I think it depends.

It depends on one’s view toward scarcity and their openness to the unusual idea that there can be more than one success in any given situation.

Habit 4: Think Win/Win is the first habit that attempts to move us from independence to interdependence. Until now, we have been getting ourselves in order (being proactive, beginning with the end in mind, putting first things first). Interdependence can only be built on a foundation of personal accountability and independence (as opposed to dependence). Once we get ourselves together, we must expand our focus to include others.

According to Covey, “Think Win-Win isn’t about being nice, nor is it a quick-fix technique. It is a character-based code for human interaction and collaboration.”

Win/Win can be a legitimate strategy for success but it cannot be manipulative (someone eventually loses with manipulation).  We must commit to it in order to be successful. It is fairly easy to spot common interests and to create mutually beneficial situations, but we must look for them. If its all about me, I’ll never see the opportunities. We must intentionally grab a partner, start talking to discover shared desired outcomes, make a plan, and keep talking to reinforce commitment to the plan and to reinforce trust. It’s about true engagement and a sincere desire to see another’s needs be met.

Win/Win is about character, relationships, and agreements.

Are you looking out for your partner (owner, engineer, inspector, regulator, contractor)? Do you have their back? Are you prepared to defend them when the time comes?

Would you like some support – someone to take up your slack? Are you tired of conflict at every turn?

Are you thinking win/win?  Why not?


This is the fourth of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleto stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Dr. John C. Maxwell teaches us that one of an organizations greatest challenges is to get its employees to think, and to do things in order of importance. This advice certainly speaks to Habit 1 – Be Proactive, but also applies here as well. For example, over the past fifteen years, our construction stormwater program has evolved into one of the best in the nation. That is mainly through an approach of continuous improvement and by putting first things first.

As with most construction programs, we started with a symptom-focused approach (sediment). From there we moved to source-focused (erosion), cause-focused (water), and implementation-focused (work). We finally landed at effectiveness-focused, where we place communication first and consider it the BEST management practice. We call the approach, The Five Pillars of Construction Stormwater Management. One can start with managing sediment if they wish and reap the consequences. But to truly be effective, we believe that one must manage communication, work, water, erosion, then sediment… in that order… first things first.

Most areas of environmental protection start by focusing on symptoms, or “low hanging fruit.” The symptoms are easy to spot, obvious to even the non-professional, and satisfying them fulfills a need to do something positive. But treating the symptom usually doesn’t solve the real problem. So we are often left treating symptoms over and over again without real change or push towards a cure.

Habit 3 is about recognizing what is truly important, zooming in, and making a commitment to keep that focus.  It’s about priorities and deciding how we will use our gift and finite resource of time. Covey provides a tools to help us with time management and decision-making. No doubt that he had no idea that his Time Management Matrix would be so applicable to our world of managing stormwater, but it fits perfectly.


Covey’s matrix is divided into four quadrants beginning with the upper left: (I) important/urgent; (II) important/not urgent; (III) not important/urgent; and (IV) not important/not urgent. Quadrant One requires immediate attention, but if focused upon, can easily consume us as it continues to grow. The only thing we can do to manage and reduce the size of Quadrant One is to shift our focus to Quadrant Two, which keeps important things from also becoming urgent things (which would move them to Quadrant One). But a focus on Quadrant Two activities requires time and energy that we may not have left if we are allowing ourselves to be sucked in by Quadrant Three or Four activities.

One example – what do you call “relaxation?” Is it really calming your mind, or is it simply filling your time while your mind goes numb? Think Candy Crush, Dance Moms, Fantasy Football, or even Google News (mainly just headline scanning for me please). We are not doomed by spending time there, but we must acknowledge that time spent there is time spent outside of Quadrant Two, which also happens to have some fun stuff.  We spend a lot of time in our vehicles. How about switching from country music to a podcast on leadership (or marketing, or marriage, or parenting, or personal fitness, or …)?

Stephen Covey encourages us in this chapter to ask ourselves a question in both personal and professional applications -

What is one thing you could do (that you aren’t doing now) that, if done on a regular basis, would make a tremendous difference in your life?

The answer sits in Quadrant Two and really could change your life… if you decide that’s where your focus lies.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Steven Covey speaks a lot about mission statements while describing Habit 2. With all due respect, I see the vision statement as being more applicable here than a mission statement. And that may simply be a different understanding of what mission and vision statements are all about. I have been a part of developing mission and vision statements in several different settings. On of the greatest challenges in that exercise is to first get everyone on the same page in regards to the purpose of each type of statement.The_7_Habits_of_Highly_Effective_People

I have learned to lean on the following definitions from John Spence’s book, Awesomely Simple: “A mission says why a company exists, the vision says where we want to go, and values declare how we will behave along the way.”

To me, beginning with the end in mind is all about seeing this ideal place or condition where we want to be. Take a second to imagine what your professional role would be in and ideal, but realistic, world. Reality matters here. We must recognize that there will always be challenges associated with water quality protection. Technical expertise and innovative solutions will always be in demand. As will the ability to influence people. Our director likes to say, “nothing worth doing can be done without contentiousness.” I think this will always be the case.

So where do you fit in? Are you the leader (in thought and in application), or do you continue to have a “job” where boxes are checked and excellence in paperwork management is top priority – where compliance is king and today looks a lot like yesterday?

What would your company or organization look like if you created it from scratch. Would you have the same structure, the same positions, people, and culture? Or would it be better positioned to actually make a difference, rather than to serve the lowest denominator at the lowest price?

If we are truly interested in doing our part to see that the goals of the Clean Water Act are achieved, we need to be able to imagine what that looks like. Creating a clear, vivid, compelling vision of our future is critical to keeping us focused on a common definition of success. Once created, that vision of the end must be communicated to every member of our team, company, organization, association, and profession.

So where are you headed?  

Andy Stanley teaches, “direction, not intention determines destination.” If we pay attention, we can see where we may end up if we stay on our selected path. We may also see how that destination may differ from our intended End.

Is that really where you want to be?

Starting with an image of the ideal destination is the most logical step in getting us there.

What does the end look like to you?


This is the second of a seven-part series applying Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to stormwater management. The series was kicked off with a post on habit.