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.

Thanks.

Barry

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

“Too thick to drink, too thin to plow.”

That’s how 19th century settlers described the water flowing in the Colorado River as it made it’s way through the desert and canyons of the Southwest.

The Colorado is easily one of the siltiest rivers in the world. Prior to the building of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 over a half a million tons of sediment was carried through the Grand Canyon every day (yes, every 24 hours). For those of us in the eastern US, one cubic foot of water in the Colorado is 17 times more silt-laden than the same volume of water in what we call “the Muddy Mississippi.”

I have heard reasoning and excuses using the Grand Canyon and Colorado as the basis for why we shouldn’t try so hard to protect water quality in other areas.  It goes something like this – “…erosion is a natural process.  If we didn’t have erosion and sediment, we wouldn’t have the Grand Canyon, the Little River Canyon (featured in the email notice to subscribers), or the marshes of Louisiana, …or (fill in the blank with any other natural feature that was created by water over thousands of years).” I have been confounded by the level of authority and influence of those who like to make such statements.

While the statements may be correct in the right context, when comparing the potential stream and habitat impacts of our work and the artificial erosion and sedimentation that can and sometimes does happen, there is no comparison. The language can make the most honored and respected of us look downright silly.

Again, context is the key. One thing I have observed over the last twenty years is that streams (and nature in general) are pretty flexible. They can be polluted, straightened, boxed, and impacted beyond imaginable repair (natural impacts can be pretty ugly also), and over time, if the injury ends and the stream is left alone, sooner or later it will regain its former purpose and once again become healthy.  The lower Colorado and its ecology is dependent on it’s sediment load, so much so that reducing that load through damming was actually detrimental to its overall health. Streams in my area (Southeast US) have a different set of needs to remain healthy. Their health thrives with a lower sediment load which is “more natural” here.

Whether we are adding tons of sediment per year or removing it; adding runoff or keeping it onsite; increasing the rate of discharge or decreasing it; we have a responsibility to understand as best we can the consequences of our actions. Not much happens in a vacuum and not many alterations in nature go unnoticed.

At the very least, we need to try our best to keep ourselves and our clients from sounding downright silly. When decisions are being made based on misinformation or convenient myths, someone should call it for what it is.  I’m thinking that’s us.

Myth: 1.) a widely held but false belief or idea; 2.) a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

 

Behind the scenes: The Colorado River sediment facts came from an excellent book I’m reading called The Emerald Mile. I’m loving the book and can’t wait for future inspiration and knowledge.

 

 

>90% Sediment Yield Reduction in 3 Easy Steps

Step 1: Delay disturbance.

Step 2: Limit disturbance.

Step 3: Once disturbed, cover it up quickly.

Covered Slope

Covered Slope

Sediment yield is measured in tons per acre per year. These units alone tell us that a reduction in exposed area or a reduction in duration of exposure can each have a direct effect on the mass of sediment produced. Can we clear less than we did last time? Can we wait a little longer before clearing? Can we get back to stabilized state more quickly?

Different sources provide varying numbers for the capacity for ground cover to minimize erosion and subsequent sediment yield. Depending on the type of cover, a conservative compilation of estimates is above 90%. RUSLE C factors also vary. USDA/NRCS numbers provide cover management factors in the range of 0.02 to 0.25, reflecting soil loss reductions of 75 to 98 percent, given all other conditions being equal.

The numbers seem to be incredible. If we said out loud to regulators, riverkeepers, and the general public that we could reduce the quantity of the most significant pollutant in construction runoff by 98%, what do you think the reaction would be? Is that something you could say convincingly?

The next question is, why are we not doing more to promote this super-effective BMP? Why do we continue to argue over 3 or 4 theoretical percentage points of reduction effectiveness for sediment control BMPs? I don’t know of a single TMDL for siltation that requires a 98% reduction in sediment. I wonder sometimes if we simply don’t trust the research that brought us these theoretical numbers.

I agree with Gavin Schmidt, who reflected on modeling in his TedTalk.  He said, “Models are not right or wrong; they’re always wrong. They’re always approximations.” He went on to say, “if we had observations of the future, we obviously would trust them more than models, but unfortunately, observations of the future are not available at this time.”

So what do we do with the results of our models and prediction tools? I say, use them to the limits of their trustworthiness. Use them for comparisons of different scenarios. Use them as general estimations of what might happen, given selected ideal conditions. Put some cushion in there, sure. But take what we can to improve our work.

Side-By-Side

Side-By-Side

I was on a project recently where I was able to see directly and clearly, in a side-by-side comparison, the benefits of cover. I saw the general results of what I could have modeled earlier.

Remnants of temporary mulch were still visible in the emerging temporary vegetation on a slope that had been cleared and grubbed several weeks earlier. A few days earlier, topsoil was stripped on a part of the slope in preparation for upcoming excavation operations. The project experienced a just less-than 2-year frequency storm before I arrived. Checks, sumps, and a sediment basin at the foot of the slope were loaded from deposition of heavy sediment. The slope was significantly rilled.

To get better footing, I walked in the rills up and across the slope over to the part of the slope where mulch and vegetation remained. The contrast between the two treatments of the same slope was remarkable. Where mulch and vegetation stood, there were hardly any rills. Where the topsoil had been stripped just feet away: a slippery, muddy, gullied-up mess with long channels where soil used to be.

Was the loss in the stripped area 98% greater that of the mulched and vegetated area? Probably not. But if the project team had kept in mind at least the theoretical effects of stripping the slope, would they have waited to strip until after the storm? Possibly.

Stripped Slope

Stripped Slope

What is the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is sit around and wait for them to come true? - Sherwood Rowland

 

I have shared the Gavin Schmidt and Sherwood Rowland quotes before. The experience of seeing the stark contrast in soil loss with my own eyes presented a good opportunity to share them again. Comment here if you’d like, but I would prefer to keep the conversation in the EnviroCert discussion groups on LinkedIn.

 

 

 

My 2014 Stormwater Influencers

It’s easy to start a list of those who have influenced my work this year. Many of you are on that list. When we think about those who made us better and those who caused us to be more effective, we have a tendency to drift toward the more technical elements of our work. We focus on measureable things. Some elements of stormwater can be measured. There are rules and regulations; there is modeling and equation-solving; there are technical terms and concepts.

But most of our world isn’t easily specified or measured. When we are working at our best, there is innovation, creativity, critical thinking, art, and there are also people involved. I am thankful for the talent and generosity of all of those who have helped me to grow technically this year. But I am also thankful for those less-technical mentors and influencers. Most on my list do not know me, but each has made a profound difference in the way I approach technical topics such as stormwater.

I can think of at least one significant stormwater-related lesson each them have taught me. I have started a list below beginning with experts and examples that are also accessible and available for your inspiration. As you are getting better, don’t forget that your technical world could benefit from some less-than-technical influence. How we carry ourselves, how we think, and how we treat people matter, even as we carry out our technical work. 

Some of my non-technical influencers (links are to some of my favorite related works):

Seth Godin, a marketing guy;
Guy Kawasaki, an evangelist (in the business sense);
Dr. Henry Cloud, a psychologist;
Dr. John Maxwell, a leadership author;
Simon Sinek, someone who asks WHY before what or how;
Andy Stanley; a preacher;
Dan Pink, an observer of human behavior;
Dave Ramsey, a teacher;
Jesus Christ, an example of one who led as a servant, gave unearned grace, and intentionally developed a perspective and empathy for others around him.

 

Thank you for sharing 2014 with me. Here’s to a productive, effective, exciting, and improving world of surface water quality in 2015.

Merry Christmas.

Barry

Showing Up

I’m a proponent of knowing our why, or purpose, then working in alignment with it.  It’s an effective approach to business and to life, and it can be applied regardless of what we happen to be working on.  If we know why we’re doing it, our work is likely to be more clear, more effective and more productive.  When our effort involves other people, and most of it does, we must also consider the why of those we need to help us achieve our objectives.

I didn’t make it to our community Christmas parade this year. I attended a wrestling parent meeting instead (meeting for parents of wrestlers, not one for wrestling parents). I must say, I was a bit disappointed when my wife and youngest daughter went to the parade without me. I was also disappointed to later find out that it wasn’t the parade we grew up with. The local dance studio didn’t dance, they just walked together in a mob. The local politicians didn’t throw candy, they just rode in vehicles with campaign signs stuck to the side. Two local radio stations had vehicles with loud speakers, but instead of playing Christmas music, they simply played the radio, complete with commercials.

I’m sure these folks and others had reasons for showing up. Some may have wanted to bring awareness to their cause or business; others may have been to support the community by paying the float fee as a donation (which could have been done without wasting everyone’s time); or marching in the parade may just be what they do – it’s what they’ve “always done.”

But many seemed to have missed out on one huge point: the parade isn’t about them. It’s about us. Sure, they can certainly gain personal benefit as a byproduct of doing good. But we didn’t show up to support them.  We came to see a parade.

Why do you show up? Is it simply to be seen, or paid? Is it just what you do every day? Or, are you showing up to give us what we paid for? Our presence, our interest, our time, and other support for your cause is always less-than-guaranteed. I’m not sure why anyone would risk it.

We get to choose what we do today. We decide where we do it and how we do it. It’s hard to make those decisions without knowing the why.

The skills of a leader (or good parade coordinator) can also help. A simple reminder with the invitation might teach or help us willing servants to remember why you wanted us to help you in the first place. A quick poll of your patrons or stakeholders might reveal a service gap that you were not aware of. But leader, you above all others, have to remember that you also must decide to show up. Not for your sake, but for ours.