We have a local event here called the Coosa River Challenge. It is an endurance race that includes trail running, mountain biking, orienteering, rock climbing, rappelling, paddling, cross-fit, swimming, and several other crazy obstacles and challenges that the “Sadistic Race Planner” dreams up every year. The race happens in early October and I have competed it about a half dozen times over the last ten years. Two of those years I ran with my son.  He was 14 the first time and 16 this year.  We placed first in the Family Team category both times and also finished in the overall top ten. It is a blast but is certainly a challenge.

It takes us about four hours to complete the course – four hours of non-stop effort with heat, cramps, crashes, mud, and mental games working on us the whole time.

Conrad Stolz, XTERRA triathlete is credited with saying that training is like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t stop when you get tired. You stop when the gorilla gets tired. Our Transportation Director frequently advises us to engage and endure. These quotes describe my approach to competing in the Coosa River Challenge. They are also applicable in our world of stormwater.

The reason we call it stormwater management and not stormwater fixing is because stormwater is not a problem to be solved, it is a tension that must be managed. Effectively managing stormwater is hard. And once we start, we have to keep pushing. Best practices can’t just be presented once to our inspectors and contractors. Priorities and expectations can’t just sit in a manual or handbook. We aren’t just designers, or installers, or maintainers – we must see the whole picture and understand that our involvement at every step is required for effectiveness. Tweaks and modifications and change are not optional.

During this year’s race, my son had to pull me along during the run. I encouraged him along during the bike leg. I volunteered for the rock climb and rappel and he carried the cross-fit challenge. We encouraged each other during the paddle and joked during the transition runs and special challenges. The race is fun as an individual. But running with a partner makes for a much shorter day, literally and mentally. I love that we can spend that kind of time together.

Stormwater sometimes also feels like a solo event - sometimes the bad guy, sometimes a lone voice, sometimes a lone nut. But in reality, thinking that we carry a project or program on our own is illusory – it can’t be done effectively. We need a good planner and designer, we need a good contractor, we need a good inspector, and regulator, and program manager, and willing employees. We need a team. We need a partner, or ten, to make our journey toward improvement shorter, physically and mentally.

Some cross-over lessons for endurance racing and stormwater management:

  • Sometimes we must lead, sometimes we must accept being pulled along,
  • relationships thrive on time,
  • happiness is more real when shared*,
  • creativity, and strength, and even peace can be found in some of the most trying and chaotic situations,
  • loosing your cool is like throwing up – you may feel better, but everyone else feels worse, and my favorite,
  • suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; character produces hope**.

And whether we are competing in a race, protecting water quality, or simply doing life, hope is a powerful thing.


*a take on Christopher McCandless’ original quote

**Romans 5

Barry Rappel

Barry on rappel (in yellow)

parker mud pit

Parker exiting mud pit


grat·i·tude - the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

It seems that society is getting further away from the quality of gratitude with every passing year. Even the use of the term in books has been on a steady decline for the last few hundred years according to Google Books. I can’t tell if it is being replaced with self-serving, selfish, ungrateful, entitled, or something else, but it seems that we are all whiney and getting whinier. I think the media certainly promotes the decline. However, I’m not sure that they’re not simply giving us what we like.

So, to buck the trend in anticipation of what is becoming one of my favorite American traditions, I would like to say thank you.

Thank you for doing what you do for water quality. Thank you for choosing a profession that isn’t completely understood or appreciated.  Thank you for choosing effectiveness over mere compliance. Thank you for doing your best to bring change in a world that is part science and part art and far from being exact. Thank you for knowing that while it may not be your fault, it is your responsibility. Thank you for seeing that technical solutions will take us only so far and that a change in behavior and even humanity may be required if we are ever to get past simply treating the symptoms.

Thank you.

I also am grateful for the break you have allowed me for the last several weeks. I received notes of encouragement from you and even picked up a few new subscribers during the break. Again, thanks. This has been a busy but satisfying season. The kids have been on the move, work has been full of change, I have been productive in some ways and lazy in others.  I have met new friends and have visited with old ones. Life is good – I’ll share more later.

Our North American holiday, Thanksgiving, started with the celebration of a harvest and a multi-cultural feast in Plymouth. It looks differently today, at least in how my family celebrates. Thankfully, we are far from celebrating our barely avoiding starvation.  For us Thanksgiving is simply a great excuse to be together. It’s another reason to get close and share good things - fun, family, stories, laughs, some football (in the yard and on TV), a hike, and of course, an over-abundance of good food. We are spoiled in comparison to the first celebrators, but thankful just the same.

The challenges of the North American stormwater professional are also quite different from the water quality concerns of times past and even in other parts of the world today. However, we cannot let our progress keep us from a continuous pursuit of a better environment. Our privilege simply puts us in a place where we don’t have to do what we do… we get to do it. And that is certainly a position of privilege.

Thank you again for being a part of what I like to think about, what I talk about, and what I do for a living.  It is with gratitude that I am resuming weekly posts to StormwaterTools. Feel free to comment here, share there, and invite others to join us as we discuss leadership, water quality, and the occasional random thought.

Happy Thanksgiving.


I’m Your Huckleberry

One of the coolest characters of all time is Doc Holliday in the movie, Tombstone. The part was played by Val Kilmer. He wasn’t intended to be the leading man, but it was my favorite role of his (a close second would be “Neek” Rivers in Top Secret! - kidding, kind of). Holliday’s best quote in Tombstone is,  “I’m your huckleberry.” He said it at times when the bad guy was looking for a fight with someone else.

The saying means, “I’ll be your man,” or “I’m just the right person for this particular job.” Holliday used the phrase at least twice as he stepped up to support his friend Wyatt Earp.

Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin also carries the I’m your huckleberry theme. The subtitle is, Are you indispensable? The book describes the linchpin – the person in every organization that invents, connects, creates, and makes things happen. Godin lays out how becoming the linchpin can safeguard our professional future, and describes why most of us choose not to be the huckleberry. He calls the fear of stepping up the Resistance and shows us how it is as much physiological as it is psychological.

The huckleberry itself is a small dark and insignificant fruit. Mark Twain named Huckleberry Finn after the berry to show that he was a boy “of lower extraction or degree” than Tom Sawyer. Hearing this made me even more attracted to the phrase as I generally root for the underdog. I really enjoy seeing seemingly small and insignificant things and people surprise us.

Challenges are around every corner. We have two choices  – intentionally remain oblivious to them or seek them out. If we choose to look for them, we might only peek with one eye because we have attuned ourselves to the fear of being scared, or we could also condition ourselves to seek the opportunity that may be just under the surface. Standing up tall is very different than standing aside or merely walking along.

Offering ourselves up as the huckleberry can be a scary thing. But doing it as a matter of practice conditions others to realize that they might actually miss us when we’re gone.


Muddy Waters

I helped my son buy his first vehicle recently. This was the seventh Jeep he has fallen in love with in the last few months, and he means it this time. He is flIMG_1495oating and completely distracted from anything else that should be important to him right now (or at least what his mom and I think should be important to him) .

I happened to see the Jeep while returning from a meeting in North Alabama. Without knowing me or my recently expanded knowledge of Jeeps, the owner of the small lot began pointing out the shortcomings of the Jeep. It’s not that he ignored the highlights. He was simply very intentional about making sure that I knew exactly what I was considering – a used vehicle with imperfections and some manageable risks. This was a very effective marketing strategy for a guy like me. But is that how a car salesman is supposed to act?

Daniel and a partner own Muddy Waters. He sells off-road vehicles like 4×4 trucks and Jeeps, side-by-sides, boats, and other personal watercraft.  He has lived in Moulton, Alabama most of his life and has been in business for over two years. He is in the process of constructing a new office on his lot. Moulton has a busy highway running through it, but its population is only about 3,500.

So how does a niche business in a small Alabama town get me to take a 3 hour return trip to purchase an ok vehicle at an ok price?

Daniel knew that if I had good information, I could make a good decision. He was ok with me not liking his Jeep. If it truly wasn’t for me, he would rather me not buy it. He respected me enough to be honest and understands that long term manipulation is simply not sustainable. His business will not thrive if customers consistently have regrets based on misrepresentation. Ours will not either.

Are you still telling others (and yourself) that we are perfect? Most aren’t buying it, but the real danger comes from those that are. Many of today’s regulatory and social expectations were built on the premise that we can actually “control” stormwater. I think we can learn some lessons from Daniel. Our work isn’t in mint condition; it doesn’t come at a bargain-basement price; there may be some future breakdowns. But, with a continued desire to make it better, and with proper maintenance, it should serve us all well for at least the life of its need.

(Of course the name of the business didn’t hurt the sale either.)






Character = the ability to meet the demands of reality – from the book, Integrity by Dr. Henry Cloud.

One reality in my world: typically an environmental win, on its own, doesn’t generate a ton of excitement. It’s usually not good enough to trigger a change or even brag about. However, if that wins comes with a few other benefits, people begin to take notice. There are those in my industry (just a few cynics) that will not accept an environmental win no mater how beneficial the change or event may have been to them. They have taken a position and will ride it to the end in spite of themselves. I learned to identify and work around those folks long ago (reality).

I work for a transportation organization, so the potential collateral benefits are obvious – enhanced safety, improved quality, increased efficiency, and the big attention-getter: cost savings. Even a short-term savings in cost can open some eyes if played well. But I like to shoot for what I call, the trifecta. It’s a distorted use of the betting term, bit I like the way it sounds. If I can get three significant benefits from a change, with one of them being an environmental win, I push. I abandoned the old, “EPA is making us do it” routine long ago. That approach seemed to be shallow, promoted compliance over commitment, and generally distracted us from getting better.

So, these days, I’m trying to sort out if I am ok with my approach. Is it ok that an environmental win, by itself, is just not good enough? Is that something I should be upset about and try to change, or is it simply an element of reality that I must acknowledge and accept?

I have decided that I am good with this reality in this particular setting.  Here’s why. My department’s mission is to provide a transportation system for the movement of people and goods in my state. It was not set up by the legislature for the purpose of protecting or enhancing the environment. That is certainly one of our many obligations as we fulfill our mission, but our main purpose is to deliver that transportation system.

My personal mission, or the purpose for my official position is to ensure that we address our environmental obligations as we fulfill our mission. That’s why the leadership here created my position. As I do my job, I should look for those opportunities that are most productive, in the interest of our mission, and in the interest of the environment.

Change is hard. If we must endure that process (and we must), we should leverage that change to gain as much benefit as we possibly can, in alignment with our organization’s mission. Call it getting “more bang for our buck” or effective marketing for our cause. Either way, it makes me think more and work harder, and it keeps us all pushing forward.

Recently we have discovered several ways of doing things better and beating the trifecta. If you have the July/August issue of Erosion Control, one of our stories is highlighted on page 46 (the ugly uncaptioned photo above the title is the traditional method, not the featured alternate). Like most others, this win took patience, determination, and the ability to meet the demands of reality.


Some demands of reality for the stormwater professional:

  • Most people are ok with your efforts. They just need some help getting to where you want them to be.
  • Short-sighted people have to see short term gains first in order to ever see a bigger picture.
  • Skeptics cant hear very well. You might have to tell them again… and again.
  • Cynics are completely deaf (to your efforts). Your time is better spent supporting those who are supporting you.


You have some fans out there and you likely know it. There doesn’t seem to be enough of them, but that’s because those against you come across more loudly. It’s all in where your ears are focused.


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



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.