What’s the Point?

It’s been off and on for me in the past, but recently the question of what we’re really trying to achieve has been front and center.  I am struggling on one particular project with exactly what our water quality goals should be.  We’re trying to find a balance between checking the box and going overboard to simply make a show for others to see.

I’m not a fan of mere compliance, but even if I was, what would that look like?  Do we work to the letter of the law?  Seriously?  Have you read those letters?  I appreciate the flexibility of interpretation that most regulation provides… until the interpretation goes against me.  How do we prepare for that?

So, do I work toward the interpretation that I think the regulator will choose, or choose my interpretation and dare anyone to question it?  Do we only shoot for meeting the state water quality standard, or for staying out of the news, or civil court?  Should we take as much care with the unregulated neighbor’s yard as we do the priority stream?  How about the discharge point that drains through a freshly harvested clear cut?

And forget about “maximum extent possible.”  That popular clarifying term has never really impressed me.  And what about our duty to be stewards of our clients’ and employer’s money?  We have some obligations there also. Right?

And all that’s just living at mere compliance.  What does being committed look like as compared to compliant?  I’m really struggling with the details lately.

As I write, I’m being drawn back to starting with WHY.  Why is it that we even bother to struggle with these questions?

We are stormwater professionals.  We are paid to answer these difficult questions. We draw the lines and set the standards.

We must seek balance between water quality protection and cost; level of effort against quality of receiving streams; priority against risks.  On every project.  At every discharge point.  Every day.

The truth may be that there is no set standard and maybe there shouldn’t be.  Maybe the difficult answer is that we must set that standard every time we are called upon to serve.

Maybe if this world of dirt and water were an easy one to standardize, and prescribe, and measure, and easy to master, and regulate, there would be no value in those who sometimes make the difficult look easy.

Rather than being frustrated by all of the unanswered questions and inconsistency in regulatory and social expectations, maybe I should be celebrating.

What are your planning and design goals?  Just how clean does your runoff need to be before you call it good?

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11 thoughts on “What’s the Point?

  • Thanks for the interesting and thoughtful observations.

    It may be that we live in a political/cultural season that makes is unlikely for public policy (through compliance systems) to achieve the sort of incremental progress you are suggesting.

    In my allied field (forestry and wood products), the key drivers towards sustainability and environmental quality (including water quality) are market-based, certification programs. Our progress is inefficient and overly-complex, but still seems to be stumbling forward.

  • Hi Barry,
    in re: “What are your planning and design goals? Just how clean does your runoff need to be before you call it good?”
    I think that maybe if you created no StormWater Runoff in the first instance, which is entirely possible, then these questions go away.
    I think that the cycle of water has been the system that has cleaned + replenished the earth for a few billion years, moderating the environment and sustaining all life. Perhaps when we attempt to restrict or inhibit the cycle of water, that is where these problems arise.
    I’m sorry that it is not more complicated than that, but it is something upon which one might think/meditate, before designing a structure which fights against the physical forces in universe.
    Achieving a design goal of zero stormwater runoff is not that difficult … if that option is open to consideration.
    mit freundlichen grüßen/best regards,
    mark rector

  • Barry,
    I’m concerned about you! This Blog sounds like it should be on a psychiatrist site. Know this, all aspects of life require balance to achieve success. Here’s a new question for you to consider: Do you want to be a leader or a follower?? Do the minimum and your a follower. Strive beyond the mondane and your a leader.
    That comes with a pound of responsibility and an once of courage. How clean does the water have to be, what if YOU had to live in it? If we as professionals understand what we do for a living leaves a mark, than make a beautiful and clean mark, regardless of the cost.
    Now can all my stormwater brothers and sisters say Amen.

  • Barry, I have to agree with Mark and Jack in the fact that if we do our due diligence as engineers, regulators, specifiers and contractors there is NO “guess work or limit of efforts/costs” in how clean our environment can be and one that is not “cost prohibitive” in order to achieve this water quality. As you talk about being “stewards” of your client’s or employer’s money in choosing how clean is clean enough I would ask you to look at the new technologies, as I have asked you to, that exist in stormwater that can achieve greater compliance (whatever that number is)and greater water quality than existing chemistries at a lesser cost. This is the question one should be asking, “are there new/other technologies and applications we haven’t given the chance that can take out the issue of “what is my limit of work/energy/cost I am going to exert and spend to achieve an unknown level”.
    This holds true not only in stormwater, but in sediment or erosion control. If we do not exercise our best efforts at sediment control that leads us to erosion control and stormwater control as Mark so eloquently stated above. So many tools exist to prevent sediment loss from step one in the industry, but no one is utilizing them. We as an industry seem to be in “reactive” mode instead of “proactive” mode consistently. The less we do, the more our profit until someone at the end has to pay for all the clean up of the person who made all the bad choices and most profit. A lot of this is also fueled by manufacturers or distributors who get a product specified or has “exclusive” rights of a product and make it hard to get other products approved within a state where this is not the right/correct solution for the state, site or industry. “Education” of specifiers, regulators, engineers and contractors of how and why products work instead of simple “product bribery” is the key to making this a “better place for our children and grandchildren” and taking the guesswork out of your questions!

  • Barry, I’m certain you are aware of the new EPA report that states that only 1 in 5 lengths of streams/rivers etc. meet water quality standards. And I’m certain you understand that water is life. I’ve worked in every role in stormwater from Regulator to consultant to mining to industry. I am a hydrogeologist with non point source focus and environmental planning educationally, and what I consider logical, reasonable, economical and progressive gets consistently labeled as “activist”. I think we all need to quit worrying about the labels and the what ifs and simply focus on “potential to impact”.
    I agree with Mark and Jack that volume capture is hands down the smartest solution in every way, and that starts with thinking outside the box, being that leader. Volume capture with a focus on “potential to impact” will almost always (if not 100%) lead to better economics too.

    If you examine all your “potentials” and rate them according to risk, then consider where you can eliminate run off, start there. Beyond that, remember that solutions CAN be simple and effective without being expensive. IF it works, it works. That’s what MEP is intended for. Be innovative. If you’re unsure which solution is best and you can still prevent impact, turn it into a study to observe two different products/BMPs. Or try integrating them. The manufacturer might even donate materials to demonstrate with, if you choose to use it as an educational tool on top of it. Is there an MS4 nearby that is in need of some additional PEP/PIP? Or a watershed group? What partnering opportunities are available?. Any university students/programs working on anything that might be applicable? Obviously this won’t always be an option, but when it is…

    And yes, there are very few situations when being a leader is considered a negative.

    As far as what does the Regulator want, well, call them. Invite them to your site or arrange a meeting at their office.
    Most are reasonable human beings who appreciate when someone is up front about a conundrum. They will almost always work with you. If they disagree with something you think is great, ask them specifically why, and then, if there is anything you can tweak that will resolve their concerns. Working in concert with the regulator towards consensus will build bridges and trust. They appreciate a little honest dialog.

    I believe compliance really comes down to that potential to impact and management of the degree’s of risk.

  • Mark, aside from being very difficult to acheive, your suggestion to capture all of the runoff would still require construction disturbance of some sort. Add this disturbance to that required for the actual construction and the questions remain regarding our goal treatment level. I do like the thought, however; no runoff = no sediment laden runoff.

    Jack, this is a psychiatric site! You just get to sit in on my sessions.
    I am 100% in agreement that we should lead ourselves and strive for commitment over compliance. But again, what does that look like? Reality and details make us/me struggle. That’s where the leadership comes in…

    Thank you both for weighing in.

  • Melissa and Tammie, thank you also for the comments. I did just read the recent EPA report, or at least the fact sheet, on the state of our Nation’s waters (I cant belive they can make any kind of assesment with a good portion of our waters never having been assessed). Its a sad commentary considering that the 40th anniverssary of the Clean Water Act is now over 40 years old and its goals are well over 25 years overdue. I’ll hopefully dig into the report tonight.

    I think there may be some room for an honest assesment of that report in contrast to the effort and resources being expended on the main sources of pollution. I didnt see sediment from construction cited as being one of those top impairments.

    My recent wondering cited in the post was about setting our goals where we balance resources against benefit.

    If we are true professionals, we should be able to make and defend our decisions in an honest debate about water quality protection.

    Thanks again for the thoughts.

  • Barry,

    I am with you brother! With 30 yrs. experience protecting water resources in the Mid-Atlantic, you hit my nail on the head. I find myself (please allow a little psycology)thinking how the current state of stormwater is so “off kilter”. How I think that regulatory compliance does not equate to improved water quality. How counter intuitive it is for me to think that some regulators do not have a clue. I know they are professional, experienced but how does my outlook seem so different?

    Just look at the methods for determining the performance of BMPs for E&S or stormwater. The sampling biasis of automated samplers throws all the previous study results out the window-Bioretention-65% removal for phosporous, nitrates, 80% for sediment-who knows, it could be more or less. It seems that no one wants to tackle this problem and find the truth. Yet still require reporting on bad science. The number of storm events required often last the grant periods so data is extrapolated.

    I feel your frustration at knowing the costs and being responsible to the tax payers. It is the higest responsibility we have. Swing too far to the left and whole programs can get eliminated. Swing too far to the right and when the politics change everyone wonders why there is such a mess.

    But there is hope and this is my message to you. When I was a child I saw soap suds on the creeks and the Potomac river. Legislation was passed that banned phosphates in detergent. Now the Potomac river supports trout at one end and rockfish at the other. There are still problems for sure but when we stop analysing what is the goal, what can we do better-What’s the point, when we stop questioning-that is when we are in trouble.

    So Heads Up Barry get back in there…little fishes are counting on you!!!

    Don’t You Quit
    When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

    When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
    When the funds are low and the debts are high,
    And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
    When care is pressing you down a bit-
    Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
    Life is queer with its twists and turns,

    As every one of us sometimes learns,
    And many a fellow turns about
    When he might have won had he stuck it out.
    Don’t give up though the pace seems slow –
    You may succeed with another blow.
    Often the goal is nearer than

    It seems to a faint and faltering man;
    Often the struggler has given up
    Whe he might have captured the victor’s cup;
    And he learned too late when the night came down,
    How close he was to the golden crown.
    Success is failure turned inside out –

    The silver tint in the clouds of doubt,
    And you never can tell how close you are,
    It might be near when it seems afar;
    So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit –
    It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

    Ralph Acosta

  • Boyd, thanks for the empathy and for the encouragement. I received an email today from a friend that said I sounded gloomy in the post. I retread the post after his email and again after reading your comment. I really didn’t intend to bring anyone down and wasn’t really even down myself.

    After puzzling a bit I glanced at the title. I think I just found my area of flawed communication.

    By asking, what’s the point, I was really asking what is YOUR point. What is your goal? It was a play on words, and maybe a bad one.

    I haven’t lost heart or plan on quitting. Just struggling a bit.

    But I really did like the words of encouragement coming from all over. It’s really cool to be connected to such a broad range of personalities and passionate professionals. Thank you.

  • Barry,

    Coming from a vantage point as a stormwater consultant within a large transportation organization I feel your pain. While trying our best to minimize impacts to water quality, there are thousands of miles of statewide road we must maintain and improve for safety and increased use. I am on the fence, labeled both a “water cop activist” by some, and a “greedy consultant” with no regard for water quality by others.
    There is definitely a balance between the fiduciary duty to economically comply with all regulations while minimizing cost for the developer/agency; and the obligation to minimize impacts to water quality from a moral and social standpoint. It is infeasible and/or impossible to eliminate stormwater run-off from a construction site. On large projects It would required acres of holding tanks or reservoirs which would certainly impact the environment substantially, also consider the fact that holding back stormwater would impact downgradient aquatic environments due to the lack of adequate flow to established channels.
    Reasonable steps to divert run-on to disturbed areas, proper scheduling, housekeeping and temporary stabilization measures substantially reduce construction impacts to water quality. It is certainly feasible to reduce impacts to water quality in a responsible manner through the proper management of a construction project from the design phase through to post construction. We are seeing substantial increases in anadromous migrations and recovering watersheds across this nation due to responsible regulation (think: involved regulators and educated constractors/agencies working together to minimize impact and still build projects), and the public/political will to enact and enforce policies that make sense, (it’s up to the professionals like us to make sure it does).

  • Nice comment David. I would like to see more data on the “recovering watersheds.” I think it helps everyone to see that there work is fruitful. Thanks for weighing in.

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