Ten Emerging Stormwater Management Best Practices

Credit: NIMBA Migrating birds rely on mud flats for foraging.

“I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach maturity if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.” –Bill Watterson

Past Stormwater Paradigms
Way back in 2001 (when some of you were in junior high, I was reminded), I wrote an article for ­Stormwater ­magazine called “Stormwater ­Paradigms.” Its purpose was to recount the ­various ways we looked at and practiced stormwater management, and why we did it that way, from when it was still called “drainage” to present.

A “paradigm” is everything I believe to be true and all that I know about a certain subject arranged into a framework. Whether that framework is actually true, useful, or even coherent is beside the point. The point is that it is my paradigm. And I only reluctantly change my beliefs and practices and agree to somebody else’s paradigm when the fact of the insufficiency of my own way of doing things stares me in the face. We in stormwater are still trying to find our identity. Is it “storm water” or “stormwater,” after all? (I rest my case.)

The table below lists those nine paradigms, including one predicted but not yet realized back then—the rise of green infrastructure. Lucky guess. I have also added a new one now emerging.


Here is what I said back then, and it is still true today:

I think you’re beginning to see the pattern. University professors and other troublemakers begin to publish ideas about how to solve current problems. New paradigms emerge. Each stormwater paradigm solves the immediate problem of the past ­paradigm and creates a more insidious problem of its own. Thus, long-term employment is guaranteed.

It’s not that the past paradigms disappear. They are alive and well in various parts of the country. In fact, it’s at this point in my standard lecture on stormwater paradigms that people start to fidget and look at the floor. Why? Because this or that paradigm is where they now live. And they suspect there are quite a few paradigm shifts ahead of them—and they are nowhere near career retirement!

Emerging Themes
So here we are in 2016. Recently I have had a series of one-on-one discussions with some stormwater thought leaders, participated in a high-level stormwater round-table discussion sponsored by the Water Environment Federation about the future of stormwater, and had a few beers with clients talking about all this.

Stormwater has always seemed like that youngest wild child who dropped out of college, hitchhiked across Europe, studied with Nepalese Buddhist monks, and smoked questionable vegetation. In all of these discussions, and in working across the country, one overall theme emerged: it is time for “stormwater management” to grow up (get a real job, get married, have kids, and buy a house). We are in a phase, culture, and financial milieu where the maturation of stormwater programs will be a necessary precondition for future success.

What does “grow up” look like? Here are nine statements of thought shifts—of disruptors to “business as usual” that have happened, or are happening—in the leading programs around the world. I’ll simply list them and then translate them into brief descriptions of some best practices for the next paradigm—which I have yet to figure out a name for.

  1. Water As a Resource: Water is precious. Rain is the only input into the hydrologic cycle. What we do with it matters.
  2. Stormwater As a System: Like water and wastewater, stormwater flows within a defined system and should be treated as such. The idea that it is a scattering of unrelated structures and segments, many of which are unmanaged, must change.
  3. Stormwater As a Business: Inefficient and ineffective stormwater management cannot be standard practice in this time of shrinking budgets, aging infrastructure, and increased citizen expectation. We must take on a business mindset.
  4. Infrastructure As an Asset: If stormwater is a system, then we have a set of assets we need to manage efficiently and effectively. Even if they are natural assets.
  5. Funding As a Change Agent: The way we structure the funding of stormwater needs to be supportive of the other key aspects of the program.
  6. Sustainability As a Standard: Long gone are the days when it was permissible to “use things up.” We humans must adopt renewable, sustainable practices in all things, including stormwater.
  7. Resiliency As a Policy: Extreme weather is a growing fact of life. Droughts and floods appear more frequently and more severely. We must change stormwater management to accommodate these realities.
  8. Citizens As Customers: If stormwater is a business, then it has customers. We need to assume a customer mindset.
  9. Technology As Normative: Given the above, the use of advanced technology in all aspects of stormwater management is an imperative.

Top 10 Best Practices
Notice this is not titled “The Top 10. . . . ” There are probably a hundred different stormwater best practices. There is an equal number of common practices. Because something is common does not mean it is effective or efficient, only that it is common. I have worked in every state and several countries in the last 30 years and have observed regional and international differences (what in the world is a “trap low,” anyway?) in design and practice. Some things that work well in one place would be a disaster in a different climate (streets are not designed to flood curb to curb in humid climates). However, I have identified a set of 10 “best practices” that have little to do directly with design standards and permitting. They are more basic than that and, I think, apply everywhere because they are not climate or government reliant but work at the policy underpinning level, making the myriad of other things work better.

Here they are:

Best Practice #1: System ­Thinking. If someone called to report a water or sewer main break in a larger collector pipe in their backyard, the customer service representative would never say, “Sorry, it is off the right of way; you will have to handle the problem yourself.” Unheard of. A crazy paradigm. Why? Because they do not have a “parcel” thinking but a “system” thinking paradigm. I own and operate a connected system top to bottom. It is mine.

The recognition and establishment of a legally defined public stormwater system is a cornerstone of a mature stormwater management program. From the time and place stormwater from a public property, road, or combination of well-managed private properties enters an inlet or ditch until it leaves the jurisdiction (and maybe beyond), the local government has some legal responsibility to keep it from damaging adjacent and downstream property, and to keep it clean. And it has some moral and legal responsibility to ensure it is functional, clean, ecologically sound, and supports triple-bottom-line (TBL) benefits. Pretending otherwise may eventuate in a liability claim, but will lead to customer dissatisfaction and marginal system performance. Stormwater will always be seen as a nuisance, not a resource.

Local governments protest that they cannot “go off the right of way (ROW), cannot make investments that improve private property, or cannot afford it.” Leading cities, large and small, rich and poor, urban and suburban, prove them wrong. In doing so they have established three interwoven policies to handle legal, cost, and customer satisfaction concerns:

  1.  “Extent of service” determines where I will go, the universe in which I operate.
  2. “Type of service” determines what sorts of things I will do when I get there—within defined budget and legal constraints.
  3. “Level of service” determines both the design and maintenance standards within which I operate.

Over time, leading programs extend to the defined outer limits of their systems—creating easements, rights of entry, or other agreements. The speed of system adoption is governed by budgets, needs, and ability to acquire access to critical systems.

This type of thinking leads naturally to a second major change: right-of-way (ROW) sharing. The ROW boundary changes from an impenetrable wall shared only with other utilities to a communal asset of great value. Such things as green streets, ROW rain gardens, central rainways, green alleys, shared green infrastructure, shared flood storage on private and public property (oh, that is what a trap low is), and more. In dense urban developments the ROW must be repurposed for high stormwater TBL value with legal and policy documents following, not leading.

Best Practice #2: Business Thinking. Leading cities have begun to run most of their departments like businesses, at least in terms of planning and execution. Stormwater is no different. Leading cities have gone back to the drawing board when it comes to the planning and provision of stormwater services and facilities, thinking in innovative ways about all sorts of things (some covered in other best practices).

Important to the success of business thinking is to have an independent source of revenue through the use of a stormwater user fee. There are now well over 1,500 such entities, and without such a move many of these practices cannot be fully realized. No other approach has the combination of stability, adequacy, flexibility, and equity (SAFE).

Another important component is the development and faithful execution of a stormwater business plan. Many local political leaders are businessmen and women. A business plan makes sense to them and draws support. The plan does not have to be complex but can be a simple detailed investigation asking and answering these questions:

  1. What are we currently spending and doing?
  2. What are our significant problems, needs, issues, and opportunities?
  3. How have others solved them and how should we?
  4. What will our key priorities be in the next five to 10 years?
  5. What are the details of the planned program and the plan to get there?
  6. What will it cost, can that be justified, and how will we pay for it?
  7. What are the next right steps, the right partners, and the right approach to implement the plan?

Phasing of program change and improvement is normally recommended, as is the use of a sound method to rate, track, and score progress in changing outcomes and outputs. Some leaders in this have successfully used the Balanced ­Scorecard approach.

Best Practice #3: Water Resource Organizations. The common and current segregation of stormwater from the other two water resource businesses in a local setting (water supply and wastewater management) is an artifice of the public works roadway mentality. Drainage was associated with roads. Period.

If we change to system thinking and consider that stormwater is part of a much larger water resources program, then the idea of combining all water agencies into one “Water Resource Department” is a natural consequence. Stormwater looks (and sometimes smells) a lot more like wastewater and water supply than police, schools, roadways, and other public departments. It should be managed with those other two.

However, this idea is not without hurdles. Water and wastewater agencies do not know how to manage stormwater—unaware of the significant differences. Here is an article I wrote about the key differences in the September 2008 issue of Stormwater. And separating stormwater from land-use decision making and roadway maintenance can be problematic without great coordination.

Still, the economies of scale in operations and the effectiveness of water resource thinking may trump the other concerns. Leaders have shown it can be done, and done well. Even if a legal or physical merger happens, a great first step is an increase in cooperation and shared resources, etc. These other “older siblings” have a lot to teach stormwater.

Best Practice #4: Asset Management. Stormwater is a business, and its millions of dollars of assets must be managed efficiently. The currently common piecemeal and reactive approach to managing the thousands of components of the stormwater system has to change. As drainage infrastructure explodes in numbers, ages, and becomes more natural in form and function, there must be a shift to predictive and proactive maintenance driven by inspections, high-technology asset management systems, and smarter technology for data collection and tracking. Older classifications of assets as “brick and mortar” need to give way to natural assets as well as the management of “soft assets” such as reputation and regulations. Decisions need to be made not on the basis of available budget but on a clear-headed assessment of a property book.

Such a system tends to have several components:

  • a “Probability of Failure—Consequence of Failure” asset inventory to set priorities and establish cost estimates
  • a set of maintenance policies and details to shift maintenance strategies along the life cycle from routine, to rehabilitation to replacement
  • a work order management system that allows detailed cost tracking and analysis, leading to savings through efficiency and work flow management. (It is a business after all.)
  • a shift to a smartphone data collection ability, allowing every employee to report issues, even every citizen, in a coordinated fashion—and allowing for periodic inventories supervised from a real-time dashboard and conducted by students in the summer at double the accuracy and half the cost

Best Practice #5: TBL Thinking. Study after study has shown two big things. People love recreating, shopping, or relaxing near attractive water features—especially flowing or moving features. Second, the true economic benefits of such features normally far outweigh the additional cost of attainment. As such, low-cost, bare bones, unattractive stormwater features should become a thing of the past where possible, replaced by attractive solutions.

Many tools for analysis and examples now exist to assist other communities looking at this best practice, and a simple web search for “Triple Bottom Line” will bring the necessary links.

A great example, among hundreds, is a project we helped design, which has become known as “The Miracle on Elmer Avenue.” Forty acres of drainage and a flood-prone and blighted neighborhood street were transformed by innovative partnering and design into a flood control feature and a green street restoration to secure enthusiastic local support. A YouTube video explains the design and the process.

Best Practice #6: Resiliency Planning. While the causes of climate change may still be in question, the reality of it should not be. In city after city and location after location, ever-more-intense rainfall events and ever-deeper droughts keep occurring. Large grants under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation have been made available to 100 cities to assist in both the planning for resilience and hiring key staff. At this writing 66 of the 100 have been chosen, with the rest coming soon. The leaders among the chosen, as well as past experience, demonstrate that, in a manner somewhat similar to implementation of green infrastructure programs, there are unexpected ancillary dividends to being resilient. It has created economic resurgence in some sectors, capital investment, and neighborhood revitalization.

Initial data and estimates indicate that the largest percentage increase in peak flows will be in the more frequent storms and are on the order of 5 to 15%. In light of this, many leading cities are beginning to link green infrastructure and resiliency, wherein green infrastructure is used in a retrofit capacity to absorb the increases in lieu of piped system rehabilitation. One example is a street retrofit using two-way inlet rain gardens, where surcharging storm pipes can flow into the rain gardens via the overflow standpipes as a pressure relief measure.

Other examples include the use of injection wells with high-flow rain garden systems, the use of under-street storage via pervious pavement or baffle distribution systems, real-time controls and smart systems, and green streets with street side tree planters.

Best Practice #7: Innovative Partnerships. Another outcome derived from some of the drivers and shifted ways of thinking is the exploration and creation of innovative partnerships. There are many purposes of such partnerships, mostly revolving around cost savings, efficiency increases, and greater flexibility.

One such approach is through the use of private resources to augment or even replace local staff. This is particularly true for duties that are cyclical. For example, the need for building inspectors and plans reviewers, and some permit activities, ebb and flow with the economy. An example is to train and certify inspectors who are hired by the developer but report to the city. In that case, if recession slows development, there are no public-sector layoffs or large down periods of inactivity.

Another common approach, perfected in the combined sewer overflow (CSO) world, is to hire private resources as program managers for the small capital and remedial maintenance program. In one city, one of our teams has designed and constructed more than 800 stormwater projects, even answering the complaint phone and coordinating with political leaders on neighborhood projects. The latest version of this is the P3 movement, where even risk is transferred to private parties.

Another growing partnership opportunity is with effective nonprofit organizations. This can become especially effective in the case of smaller residential green infrastructure, where a city can create goodwill through funding such programs and incentives but avoid the complications by having long-term interfacing, education, and other programs transferred and funded through a nonprofit.

In other cases, cities band together to gain economies of scale or reduced pricing. This is growing more common for street sweeping or aerial photography contracts, common master or land-use planning, and even the purchase and shared use of certain equipment.

Best Practice #8: Modified Rate Structures. Many cities are using the advent of green infrastructure and resiliency, and potential cost increases, to update and upgrade their stormwater user fee rate structure. By this time a fairly comprehensive set of legal tests exists by which a community can compare its own rate structure as part of a planned rate increase. Leaders in this area are looking at the various components of their rate structure and retooling or fine-tuning them to enhance equity, encourage specific behaviors, and better reflect cost causation. As rates increase, public scrutiny of older rate structures, and even legal action, is growing more commonplace.

Basic rate methodologies are replacing flat-rate residential charges with a more equitable tier system.

As the volume of runoff becomes more and more important, some utilities are recognizing that the volume from urban grassed areas is often more than twice as high as from forested areas, regardless of imperviousness. Others are recognizing that the roadway system comprises one-third of the impervious area but is largely ignored.

Credit mechanisms incent private investment for ongoing public benefits. Some forms of credit recognize resiliency investments, green infrastructure systems, or advanced detention controls. Still others recognize that maintenance cost per acre is far less for large properties that maintain their own systems (and often public systems within their property lines as well) and “subcontract” to them to do so.

Incentives for private action to create a public good are growing in size and complexity. On the residential side, one county found that the largest hurdle to the voluntary creation of residential rain gardens was not money, per se, but the difficulty in digging the hole and placing the main piping system. When this was done for the residents, then the number of rain gardens grew greatly.

Another community determined what an attractive return on investment would be for retrofitting for the private storage of stormwater to assist on CSO compliance. It found that through a combination of one-time incentives and ongoing credits it could encourage the creation of non-residential consortiums that saw the opportunity to do something to help the environment, gain TBL benefits on their sites, and gain both single and triple-bottom-line benefit as well.

Other examples abound where businesslike approaches produce public and private partnerships, or private actions extend the ability of the utility at a fraction of the cost.

Best Practice #9: Strategic Public Engagement. Long gone are the days when communities could go about their business and attempt to avoid the public, or consign it to the Public Affairs Officer. Leading cities have developed comprehensive public engagement strategies, mastered social media, and involved the public in real and influential ways. The two basic rules of surviving change in stormwater programs are never more true than now: (1) Bring me in early—I’m your partner. Bring me in late—I’m your judge; and (2) Insert a citizens advisory group in the middle of hard decisions, give them real input powers, and ask them, in return, to stand with you publicly when the time comes to roll out changes.

It all starts with a plan that asks and answers:

  1. Who are the “publics”?
  2. What are the best compelling messages?
  3. When are the messages sent?
  4. What are the most effective mediums by which they are sent to each group?
  5. How do we respond in a public affairs emergency?

Best Practice #10: Go High Tech As a Policy. Emerging technologies will continue to revolutionize parts of the stormwater management program. Just in the past five years we have seen the emergence and perfection of such breakthroughs as smartphone inventory and maintenance reporting applications, real-time detention or green infrastructure optimization, asset management systems, constant discharge outlet works, pictography, LiDAR-based surveying, dashboard-driven monitoring programs, multilevel multi-government watershed management systems, real-time distributed weather prediction and warning systems, and more.

Some of these have the ability, especially for critical locations, to greatly reduce cost while enhancing performance. For example, real-time controls can open and close outlet structures, maximizing the capture of flood-causing rainfall bursts while allowing lesser flows to enter the system rather than taking up storage capacity. Storage savings above 50% are not uncommon. Smartphone applications can be customized to allow for dashboard-based real-time quality control of low-cost summer student infrastructure inventories, wherein an engineer watches the flow of data from multiple teams and communicates instantly when something looks wrong or incomplete. Similar apps can be developed for citizen maintenance reporting of the thousands of green infrastructure locations though cloud-based applications.

For communities with long linear features, such as a levee or greenway system, drone-based inspections can greatly reduce cost and quickly pinpoint questionable areas where direct human contact is necessary. Smart monitoring systems can lower flood barriers automatically day or night, protecting citizens from entering unsafe waters.

Next Steps in Implementation
Not every best practice described above is fully applicable to every city. None are easy. But most would improve some aspect of the local stormwater management program even if only baby steps were taken.

Step one is to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start the business plan process. Use it as a catalyst to involve various groups and departments in rethinking stormwater and its place among all the activities of local government.

Growing up is hard. But it’s time. SW_bug_web

Andy Reese will give a presentation on this topic Tuesday, August 23, 2016, at StormCon in Indianapolis. See www.StormCon.com for details and check out his webcasts at Forester University, www.ForesterUniversity.com.


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