Where Have All the Civil Engineers Gone…

… was a question posed to the LinkedIn Stormwater Solutions group last week.   The author, Matt Barcus was wondering where civil engineers go when there is no engineering work available.  Rather than highjack the intent of the thread I decided to write this post.

Matt’s question touched a nerve.  I am genuinely bothered that civil engineers have chosen to sit out on a problem (and huge business opportunity) that affects a part of society that we helped to create.

The effects of unchecked post construction discharge are wreaking havoc on our urban infrastructure.  We all understand the issues.  As we develop and build out our cities, hydrology is changed.  Land use changes, runoff curve numbers change, time of concentration decreases.  Runoff volume, velocity and peak discharges increase.  Shear stresses on the banks and beds of urban ditches and streams exceed those intended by their designer.

It has become apparent that the concrete and rip rap ditch lining and channelizing solutions of our past are no longer providing acceptable solutions.  Not only do they simply kick the can down the stream, they do nothing for water quality.  And if you haven’t noticed we are over 25 years behind meeting the 40 year old goals of the Clean Water Act.

My beef is that we civil engineers, who used to own infrastructure preservation, have given leadership of the topic over to environmental advocacy groups and landscape architects.  And regulators are listening to them – happily accepting the advice and guidance from anyone with expertise that is willing to participate… not that there is anything wrong with that.

It appears that green groups see an environmental issue that can be solved with collateral positive benefits to infrastructure.  Engineers seem to only see the more publicized environmental issues associated with water quality.  Not our business, right?


First of all, infrastructure-related regulations affect civil engineers.  Whine all you want, but if your interests aren’t protected during the rulemaking process, who is truly to blame?

Second, there is a very real expectation that civil engineers play a part in the improvement of the quality of our Nation’s waters.  Read the Background section of my Five Pillars of Construction Stormwater Management article.

Thirdly, the American Society of Civil Engineers (our society) is telling folks that we actually care about the environment.  Environmental stewardship and sustainability are written all over the Goals and Strategic Priorities of ASCE.  We should dare to read them.

So, if we are infrastructure experts; AND there is a real expectation that we get better in matters of water quality; AND we really do care; does it make sense for anyone other than civil engineers to lead the current post construction runoff discussion?  Forget the fact that in this economy it would be foolish for any profession to give up any part of its base, much less an area that it used to own outright.

Disagree?  Let’s talk about it.  Comment below.

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12 thoughts on “Where Have All the Civil Engineers Gone…

  • A few additional resources to consider:

    An excellent short video on the subject featuring real-life engineers created by the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWWVwEWpzi8

    Also, my Prezi presentation used to deliver a talk about the subject to the Alabama Chapter of ASCE last Summer – http://prezi.com/tvgcxjvlkoq6/looking-at-stormwater-from-a-different-grid/
    (for best viewing go to full screen using the button at the lower right of the viewer)


  • I hope you don’t mind my long reply – based on what we are facing right now in Illinois, this really strikes home with me. I totally agree with you that we should be at the forefront of these efforts. But here is our challenge:

    In Illinois, and in particular in the Chicago Metro area where I work, civil engineers have been diligently working on storm water for decades. They’ve also managed to do it in a way that has achieved stakeholder buy-in, and they have experienced a lot of success. Unfortunately engineers usually work in the background silently taking care of business which often ends up causing people to not really know or understand what they have done. So many people are not even aware of the existing storm water standards and regulations engineers have already developed.

    The other component to this that I have seen develop over the last few years is that environmental groups have increasingly shut out engineers from development of regulations and standards. My own assessment has been that this is happening for the following reasons:

    People don’t like being told their idea won’t work:
    Unfortunately even though these groups are not experts in design, construction, or maintenance of these facilities, they passionately suggest solutions that they feel are the right ones. Then when they share their solutions with the experts, who are the engineers, they are told all the reasons their solutions don’t work. Then the groups take this as an indication the engineers just don’t want to do what is environmentally right instead of admitting that maybe these groups don’t have the right experience to be developing the solutions. So they just shut us out completely – this is exactly what is happening right now in Illinois. The end result is that unreasonable and costly solutions that don’t work and can’t be regulated or managed are implemented. Of course the taxpayer foots the bill in the end.

    Instead of continuing to go down that road which ends in solutions that don’t work or end up meeting the original intentions, everyone should be working together and respect each other and what they bring to the table. My ideal view of this is for environmental groups to work with citizens to develop environmental goals. Engineers collaborate with them to come up with solutions and regulations that they know based on their experience will meet those goals. Elected officials monitor the entire process so that when they are presented with the final solution they understand it, know it has buy-in and can actually work, and we can afford it. The key to making it work is having a great facilitator who understands everyone’s role and helps them maximize their contribution. The facilitator then helps everyone bring it all together into the final solution.

    Engineers cost money:
    And finally I hate to think this is the cause, but I have seen cities let engineers go in what appears to be an effort to save money. Then they hire a non-engineer who makes less to manage storm water projects and develop solutions. In the cities where this has been done, it is obvious the person replacing the engineer has no experience or understanding of what they are doing. This has resulted in costly projects that don’t function and present a future maintenance problem.

  • Civil Engineers in many states have both lead the effort and been heavily involved in creating the current stormwater management regulations for several decades. We pretty much own a very involved set of stormwater regulations. I will argue in many cases that we are over regulated. I think the issues of stormwater quantity have been beat to death for many decades. Its now a political struggle involving money to pay for the unmitigated impervious areas and environmentallly unfriendly hydraulic structures created in the past, and the amount of science and engineering to be required to meet the regulations. The issues of water quality are an onging challenge and again engineers are at the forefront of developing the new regulations and prescribing the mitigations. Engineers developed the TMDLS and they are now developing the cookbooks to meet them.

  • I agree with your the article and the response by Pam. Most of ‘society’ doesn’t really understand what we do, we rarely agree with their good intentions, and our technical solutions can be costly and ugly. I have spent my education and career trying to understand all facts and opinions and get to a good triple-bottom-line solution. Getting involved with these policy makers and environmental groups on a volunteer or personal level has been a good way for me to gain trust with these groups and becoming become a resource for my community.

  • Treatment of storm water is a challenge to all Civil Engineering Projects. However devising means to absorb water at the very point where the project is being constructed by say providing deep percolation pits or ditches can play a great deal. This has proved successful for residential houses. This further enriches our underground water potentials.

  • I find the main issue is we have large design offices segragating Environment and civil departments. This breeds environmental based hydrologists with little civil design skills and at the same time civil designers with no environmental (and even detailed hydrology or flood modelling) skills. This disconnect is preventing better design solutions being determined I feel. We need to breed more ‘all rounders’ people who know civil engineering and stormwater quality back the front, both fields really aren’t that large that they should remain segregated.

  • All great comments thus far. Thanks for weighing in.

    Kane, I think you have nailed it. For too many years stormwater has been an afterthought during design and generally left to the “stormwater guys” to address sometime be fore construction but after the real design takes place.
    Your use of the term, disconnect is appropriate. When stormwater is integrated into the design as a critical element of design, the process is much more efficient and effective. Time, money, energy and headache can be minimized, not to mention benefits to water quality, when stormwater is addressed early and often – during planning, design, into construction, maintenance and operation.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  • Grate article I hope developing countries take notice since green groups are gaining momemtum in these countries.

  • The Stormwater Equipment Manufacturers Association (SWEMA) http://www.stormwaterassociation.com is actively looking to increase its Professional membership and invites all engineers to join our organization and assist SWEMA inits efforts. The cost for a Professional membership is just $100./year. Please visit our web site and join so that 2013 can be a banner year in bringing scientific and engineering solutions to the stormwater clean up effort.

  • Landscapes and the natural world can be an intimidating place for people who prefer the predictability of the Manning’s Equation, and rightfully so! The complexity should humble anyone working in the field of LID.

    This is a challenge I recognized and started to address 4.5 years ago. Well, I’m a civil engineering designer, but I have 16 years experience creating green sites for green buildings and am finally starting to work on building-less green sites. I’ve worked in civil engineering and landscape architecture offices and am working slowly but successfully to bridge the gap. I’ve dedicated my business to mentoring engineers (and others), which means I’m truly sharing important information so that they will not need me after we work on a few projects together… or need me less.

    Real collaboration, not careful protection of our hard sought competitive edge, is the future. I challenge engineers and designers everywhere to humbly join me in this endeavor, even if you’re not actually “joining” me. Without a healthy environment yielding natural resources and ecosystem services for our needs, there is no economy.

  • Maria, thanks for weighing in. Two of your statements really jumped out at me.

    “I’m truly sharing important information so that they will not need me after we work on a few projects together… or need me less” and

    “Real collaboration, not careful protection of our hard sought competitive edge, is the future”

    I am a real fan of that kind of thinking.

    I will be delivering the keynote address for the upcoming IECA annual meeting in a few weeks. Your comments fit right in with what I plan to present. I will be digging into that address more in the coming weeks.

    Thanks again for sharing and for issuing your challenge.

  • Engineers. Get over yourselves already. You do a lot of good and great works, but you’re not the difinative answer. It is good to be confident and assertive in judgement and expertise based on years of experience, but it’s also key to be OPEN. We’re not perfect. Remember the same “experts” who thought only 60 years ago that draining the Everglades was a good idea, stormwater was a nuisance to be rid of in the most expedient manner and wetlands were a waste of acerage. Beauracrats and Environmentalists- YOU TOO need to lighten up. Excessive and impossible regulation will not bring about change and compliance – only avoidance and resentment. The idea of removing all polutants from stormwater when we as a society continue to promote and embrace one of the biggest sources of pollution (the automoble) is hypocritical. Eithor ban it outright or lets work together to come up with some practicle ways of mitigating stormwater pollution. I think we all want the same things but waste a lot of energy getting to it by rigidly staying in our own camps.

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