AU-ESCTF

I wanted to share a resource for construction stormwater professionals that has been valuable to my work. The Auburn University Erosion and Sediment Control Testing Facility (AU-ESCTF) started with a need, much thought, and a sketch. In the early 2000′s the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) recognized that most of the promoted and available BMPs and practice configurations were not founded in solid research. Hay bales and silt fence carried the day and rules-of-thumb set the standard.

auesctf 1

In 2002 ALDOT needed to get better, quickly. They saw the benefit in updating standard drawings and specifications, and were interested in only applying the best of the state of practice. Many questions of where traditional guidance came up short on answers. They sought help from the Auburn University Civil Engineering Department.

Dr. Wesley Zech, and others had some ideas. Those ideas matched closely the ideas of myself and other ALDOT stormwater staff. Meetings were held, goals and objectives were established, and initial funding for a few small research projects was arranged.  A collaboration involving ALDOT, the Auburn University Highway Research Center, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) eventually resulted in funding for construction of the testing facility.

Today, the AU-ESCTF is focused on and serves in three key areas: (1) Research & Development, (2) Product Evaluation, and (3) Training. The effort has produced many research reports, articles, theses and dissertations. Findings of research have led to improvements in application and changes to ALDOT’s standard requirements for BMP construction and maintenance.

The facility has hosted several training events where designers, inspectors, regulators, contractors, and vendors can see BMP installation and use first hand. For many, a visit to the facility offers the first time ever they have actually seen water flow through an erosion or sediment control management practice.

The future is bright with opportunities for expansion of facilities and types of testing available for DOTs, regulatory agencies, manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

In addition to the facility’s mission the staff at AU-ESCTF has recently been serving the stormwater community in different ways. The AU-ESCTF website now hosts a much needed calendar for all stormwater-related events in Alabama. The site also includes tools such as a sediment basin design calculator and links to other stormwater-related resources.

The site is chocked full of information about the facility and its services. Photos, some showing yours truly, highlight just how far we have come from a need and essentially a napkin sketch.  Some pretty cool videos can also be viewed at the AU-ESCTF YouTube channel.

Take a look, share the information with your colleagues, and be thinking of ways the AU-ESCTF staff can assist you and your work.

We Participate

Earlier this year I attended the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Among all of the technical presentations and data and facts, one of the most memorable quotes came from a training session about training. The presenter was Chris Liban. The quote in my memory was,

“We are not surprised because we participate.”

Mr. Liban was representing the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as its Deputy Executive Officer for the Environment. The overall theme of the workshop was environmental training for transportation workers. During his presentation he shifted to the topic of participation in regulatory processes. I recently found my notes with the exact quote. He actually said, “Because we comment, we are ahead of the game”  (I was pleased that I had at least remembered the general intent).

He was making the point that if an organization has a culture of participation, shifts in regulatory language or even regulatory interpretation don’t come as a surprise. We typically learn of changes on the horizon, if we are paying attention, sometimes years before they actually hit the fan. Today, agencies are often very intentional about getting the rationale out in the public space early. The information can calm rumors, and if nothing else, enables an early start on a positive spin. (I acknowledge that this is not and has not always been the case, but I think we have seen a major shift in marketing in this area with the increase in professional connectedness of today.)

If you were surprised several years ago when EPA placed a numeric limitation of 280 NTU in the general permit, you had likely not been paying attention. If you had been participating, you would have been breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t the 13 NTU originally proposed.

If you were surprised that EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (known collectively  to some simply as, “Obama” ) recently dared to declare tributaries as being Waters of the US, you have likely not been participating (or regulated).

If your state general permit has language in it that is neither implementable nor enforceable, and that language has been there for the last three permit cycles, you are likely not participating to the extent that maybe you should be.

Effecting and managing change is never easy. But it is necessary. It is required to keep up with or get ahead of competition and required to maintain pace with the ever Ratcheting Environmental Pendulum. If you want to make change less shocking and disruptive, let your people know what’s coming. Let them know early and often. Let them know why, let them know how bad it could have been and let them know how their organization worked to make the change more in line with our interests.

The only way to put yourself in that position is to participate.

You are regulated by at least one permit that will expire before the next president completes his or her first term. What will the next one look like? What is unfair or unreasonable about the current permit? How could the permit language better protect the environment while at the same time reduce your burdens?

Your regulator will accept your comments and will likely consider your concerns well before the official comment period begins.  Go ahead and start the conversation now. Comment, and get ahead of the game.

 

 

Leader Notes

I met with the person who leads our organization in title and in practice the other day. We discussed some of the finer elements of leadership. I thought you might appreciate seeing some of my notes. They apply in the world of business, the world of stormwater, and in life in general.

Leadership Characteristics: “3 C’s and 2 E’s”

  • Character
  • Capability
  • Commitment
  • Energy
  • Empathy

On inspiring others:  “What we do matters.”

We may not know how or who we impact by our words and actions, but we do in fact have influence. We may not remember what we said or exactly how we said it, but people are listening and are being changed. They may let us know years down the road, or they may not. Our work is important; our words are important; we are important. It’s an honor, a responsibility, and a privilege to get to do what we do every day.

On communication: “Context matters.”

 We can say things today to these people that we could not say effectively yesterday to those people. Sometimes we can call it exactly like we see it, sometimes we must be more tactful. Age, position, and level of respect dictate our ability to be heard and what we get to say without causing offense.

On dealing with people and issues: “Engage and Endure” 

Engagement is not an option. We must dig in. Once we take on an issue, person, or relationship, we must see it thru – no dabbling.

On modern-day leadership: Today, leaders must actually lead.

“Leadership” is defined differently today. Organizational structure has flattened over the years. Leaders mingle. Leaders participate.  They must walk among the people. There may have been a time when leaders could say and act however they wanted. That day is gone. People expect leadership from leaders not dictatorship.

Best motivator of people: Hope.

From Romans 5:3-4  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  Hope does not disappoint us. (The verse was taken a bit out of context, but still worth keeping in mind – true in professional and spiritual walks.)

 

I think Engage and Endure was my favorite advice of the day and speaks directly to the stormwater professional.

The Maze Hack

Somewhere along the way, someone introduced me to the easy way to solve a maze. I don’t know if it was my older brother or simply some other kid in my third or fourth grade class. From that day forward, even though it felt like cheating, I don’t think I ever worked a maze “correctly” again.Back-to-School-Printable-Maze-Game-For-Kids

This morning my seven year old was working a maze on the back of a cereal box. I debated whether or not to give her the hack. I decided that she will either figure it out on her own or someone along the way, maybe me, will give it to her later.

If your not familiar with the hack, I think you have wasted enough of your life. The trick is that you simply start at the end and work your way backwards to the start.

There is usually only one correct path heading toward the beginning if you start at the end. Once we see it, the whole path seems to open up in front of us. Starting at the beginning, however, presents many different paths and choices. All but one representing wasted resources and having nothing to do with getting us to where we need to be.

Regulation has conditioned us to start at the beginning of the stormwater maze. It pushes us to hit roadblock after roadblock trying to sort out “the right way” to keep ourselves and our client “in compliance.” Most of the time, we never make it to the ultimate goal of effectively protecting water quality. We simply arrive at stations along the way where we are rewarded with accommodation and rest as we satisfy the bureaucracy and tradition of how we’ve always done it. We usually just stop and sit at these islands where the regulatory natives pat us on the back and congratulate us on keeping our paperwork up. The project (or our career) ultimately ends, and we feel good that we made it to the magic kingdom of compliance (which, I’ll admit, is right where we are often paid to arrive).

But what if we started at the end and worked backward toward the start?  What if we chose effectiveness and excellence in water quality protection first, then worked our way back to the NOI? I’m sure we would hit some of the regulatory milestones along the way, but I suspect many would not be on the critical path.

The challenge for the stormwater practitioner and the stormwater regulator is to make compliance a collateral benefit of commitment. The practitioner must demonstrate heart and intent as some of the hoops off of the critical path are missed. The regulator must see pride for what it is and do everything they can to encourage positive intent and not distract it through frustration.

But Barry, what about the journey?

I enjoy a good journey as well. I love an adventure. Heck, I even appreciate the planning that goes into a good trip. My experiences with working mazes “the right way” has been far from an adventure. Most of the time, the maze and it’s intentionally misleading backward directions were placed in front of me to simply pass the time, not to enrich my life. I am pretty sure that when I learned the hack, I mourned for all of the time I had wasted in my young little life.

I must admit that I have never seen the challenge of a corn maze or a fancy English garden privet maze. Maybe my take on mazes would be different. But to be fair, I have paid for my older two and I to run around a hot gravel-bedded maze made of privacy fence pickets at Desoto Caverns once.  I think we ended up playing hide and seek and crawling back and forth under the walls. It was a great day that really had nothing to do with starting at the beginning and following directions along the way.

Spend your time bumping into walls, or make yourself feel good by making others bump into walls if you want, but our waters deserve better and society expects more.

Factor of Safety

rails

 

The phrase and concept of Factor of Safety is commonly applied in engineering. It describes the design capacity of a system beyond the actual forces the system is expected to experience. Consider a handrail at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The designer considers the expected loads. Not just a single average adult leaning on the rail as she takes a photograph, but an entire family of kids, parents, cousins, and crazy uncles, with builds of NFL offensive linemen, laughing and joking and hanging and pushing on the rail as if they were trying to break out of the zoo. That’s where the designer starts and dreams up a barrier made of materials that will counter the loads last for some “design life” under the expected environmental conditions, with strength enough to hold the anticipated circus. Then a factor of safety is added.

The factor of safety attempts to account for the unseen and sometimes unpredictable shortcomings in material flaws, workmanship issues, and the fact that the fence may have to keep working beyond its intended lifespan.

Designers could be seen as professionally negligent if the factor of safety were omitted in several areas of engineering. This includes hydraulics associated with stormwater runoff, but often only to the point of managing the water to the perimeter of the site. And it’s not always associated with the safety of humans. Geotechnical engineers apply factors of safety all the time, even in areas where the chances for loss of life is very remote.

For some reason, when it comes to the potential for negative impacts associated with runoff beyond the site, our professional culture allows us to not only throw away the cushion and margin provided by the factor of safety, we somehow feel its ok to go the other way.  Today, we understand fairly well the consequences of increasing post development volumes and peak discharges, but we continue to allow ourselves these increases, as long as we feel they are “minor” or “insignificant.”

I know the standard of practice as a whole is not there yet, but imagine a day when we can exchange designs causing insignificant negative impacts for projects that have zero net negative effects. What if we went beyond that to also include a factor of safety to accommodate for inherent differing anticipated conditions and flaws in our past thinking? Plausible?  I think so.

 

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 Amazon.com 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, betterbeltline.org was no accident.

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