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.






Choosing Better Over Best

The letters, BMP mean different things to different professionals. While we may technically get the terminology correct, our actions sometimes speak differently.

Many of us have twisted the letters to represent phrases like, Best Manufactured Product. Our reliance and focus on installed things causes increased cost-to-benefit, misplaced confidence, and distraction. There are some amazing products and technologies in our world today. We should be proud of that and should continue to innovate and utilize the truly best of these “practices.”

Practice, is different that the term, product. There are a couple of definitions, and neither describe a physical thing. Its about application. Its about action. Practicing is about doing. It is not about the widget.

Management is about being in charge. Its about getting things done. It is not about control (i.e. erosion control, sediment control). Stormwater is more about the behavior of water, soils, and people – none of which we have really any control over. To think we are in control of much of anything is simply being delusional.

Best is about excellence… the most excellent… which is better than all other things, including the best things of yesterday. Because we are smart, because we innovate, because we care, our best today is better than our best of twenty years ago. It only makes sense that tomorrow’s best will be better than today’s.

When the actions representing a regulatory term change every day, practitioners struggle to stay in compliance and regulators struggle to enforce.

It’s not a problem with the concept of requiring most excellent actions to reach a goal. Its a problem in how we personally approach the task. When we twist our intent to cause the impossible application of absolute control over uncontrollable things using a limited set of yesterday’s products, it is no wonder we fail time and time again.

Our continued focus on symptoms exemplifies and is a byproduct of this type of thinking. Moving to the source (erosion vs sediment focused) is better but still not best. Continuing to look for root causes including how we behave, and manage our work, and how we collaborate and communicate is getting us closer to best… at least for today.

There is a lot of talk about standards these days. And there a lot of hard working, intelligent, passionate professionals working toward that end. I really hope that as we get closer, we can recognize why the destination continues to elude us. Its not because facilitation, mediation, or dedication is lacking. It is because we may have never properly defined the term, BMP.

I suspect that what is realistic for us to shoot for is the Better Management Practice. Better than yesterday and getting even better tomorrow.

EnviroCert International is working hard to close the gap between the best of yesterday and the best of tomorrow. When the opportunity comes along, please contribute equipped with a better understanding of best. Get ready for your chance to contribute by joining the EnviroCert discussion group on LinkedIn.

When Presenting, Never/Always (Unless)…

With conference season in full swing, I have been reminded of a few Never/Always (unless)- rules of engagement for presenters. And with IECA EC15 coming up next week in Portland, and with time to adjust, I thought I would share a few rules before you make the same mistakes I have over the years.

Never use the laser pointer… unless you are +90% confident and comfortable. Imagine us as an audience of cats – your little red bouncing ball is quite distracting to us. And when you do use the pointer, aim, point, shoot, and put it away. It’s not helpful to highlight the words on the screen as you read them to us.

Never use video… unless you have tested the video with sound in the room and on the computer you will be using several times. If you have satisfied these requirements, never use streaming video, and always have a Plan B. Be prepared to describe the video in detail from memory, or at least the main points you were trying to convey.

Never show a URL on the screen… unless you have made it so simple that we can jot it down in less than 3 seconds. Try bitly. We would rather you give us some keywords to search with.

Never take our time to describe your reaction to being asked to present… unless… well… never. We don’t care. Get to the point.

Always nail the introduction and the closing… unless you don’t want to make a good initial or memorable impression. I blew this one just a few days ago by waffling on my closing up until show time.

Always repeat the question before answering… unless the question came from a microphone or was so loud and clear that we heard it in the back of the room. We want to be included in your conversation while you have our attention.

Always know your purpose… No exceptions. Why are you bothering us? Is it to make a positive difference in your community of influence? To help grow your company? To position yourself as an obvious expert? To prove to yourself that you can do it? We don’t care why. But if your what and your how are not in alignment with your why, we will likely leave confused and turned off.

Always treat your audience with respect… No exceptions. Please prepare. We know when you haven’t. It may be your time to shine, but its our time you have stolen. Focus on making it worth our while… not yours.

Of course, there are plenty of other rules and tips of the trade out there. Look them up. What are your pet peeves? Let us know below and we’ll try to avoid them.

See you in Portland!

Turbidity Curtain (Floating Basin Boom)

Result of inappropriate boom installation

Result of inappropriate boom application – wasteful and harmful, not helpful

I was recently asked to weigh in on regulatory requirements and the use of turbidity curtains or floating basin boomI passed along the following –


A few observations related to experience with turbidity curtains over the last 20 years or so…

• Turbidity curtains can keep turbid water separated from clear water under appropriate conditions.

• Turbidity curtains can minimize the migration of sediment from one area of still water to another.

• When turbidity curtains work, sediment is deposited on the bottom of US waters, with no good way to retrieve it.

• Sediment cannot be effectively removed from waters flowing with much velocity.

• Turbidity curtains are not permeable and will act as a dam, until the force of water exceeds the capacity of the anchoring.

• Where there is current, or fluctuation in water level to any degree, adequate anchoring to maintain performance is nearly impossible.

• Turbidity curtains are expensive compared to the benefits received.

• Many stormwater professionals, regulators, environmentalists, contractors, and the general public are comforted by seeing turbidity curtains installed. Others, including myself, recognize the misplaced confidence and sometimes harmful impacts of the boom.


I encourage designers, contractors and other professionals to think hard about the purpose and expected performance of the turbidity curtain before specifying or installing one.


Result of appropriate boom application - sediment still captured in US Waters

Result of appropriate boom application – sediment still captured in US Waters

Some considerations:

• Is the boom being used simply as a redundant feature? (we should never intentionally capture upland sediment in our US waters)

• Is the boom being used to minimize the migration of sediment that existed in the water prior to disturbance?

• Is the water body completely still with very little velocity or anticipated change in level?

• If effective, will the ultimate removal of the boom and any captured sediment do more harm than good?

• Is the turbidity curtain needed for image and appearance? (if so, are conversation and education in order rather than scarce resources spent on an ineffective BMP?)


Your experiences and thoughts?

Good Enough

Over the holidays my wife and I were painting my youngest daughter’s room and struck up a conversation about standards and quality.

We noticed that the top of the window and door trim had not been painted when the house was built. We are both ok with that but I’m guessing my Dad may not have been. I’m guessing that if he were doing the painting, the unseen parts of the trim would have been just as presentable as the most visible parts. I don’t know if that is a generational thing (many would say it is), or if its a personality thing, or simply a resource and priority-based decision that we all must make.

I’ve been in Washington DC this week and have found brief pockets of time to walk about some. I have paid particularly close attention to hidden details in building architecture and in art this trip. There are monuments and sculptures on every corner. I also visited the National Gallery of Art. The paintings were amazing – from Van Gogh to Monet to Gerome; from abstract to modest to detailed beyond my imagination.

BMP as Art: gargoyles were initially added to architecture to route stormwater away from exterior walls.

BMP as Art: gargoyles were initially added to architecture to route stormwater away from exterior walls.

Many artists and craftsmen spent many hours and much effort designing, carving, painting, and shaping details that most of the works’ admirers would never see or appreciate.

So back to the question of quality and what should be considered good enough (I also need to tie this to stormwater somehow). I think there are at least three areas that need to be considered as we determine what level of quality is good enough – function, the consumer, and resources.

Function: will my work serve its intended purpose? (is it truly protective of water quality?)
Consumer: whom do we work for? (other than the client, who else might be counting on us?)
Resources: do I have the time, money, materials, craftsmanship to do this right? (why not? the client is paying you exactly what you asked for during the bidding process. Right?)

Checking the box… or making beneficial art?

Doing what is necessary every time… or only when someone can see you?

Barely meeting expectations set by your winning low bid… or surpising everyone with your innovation and attention to detail?

We don’t get to decide if our art is valuable. That’s up to those who experience it.


Bonus: photo and close ups of View of Medinet El-Fayoum by Jean-Leon Gerome, oil on panel c.1868-1870

(Click on, then zoom into and around the images.  The level of detail is amazing, even with the less than perfect photography.)

The Painting

The Painting

zoomed in to the bridge

Bridge Close up

Water close up

Water close up