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Addressing Phase II NPDES Problems Before They Become a Headache

by John May

With less than one year to go, the Phase II NPDES stormwater program is looming large on the horizon. With a potential impact on over eight thousand municipal and county governments nationwide, the Phase II stormwater program represents the next logical step in the Clean Water Act for addressing non-point source pollution problems. In developing the Phase II program, the EPA drew upon many lessons and experiences gained by the approximately one thousand organizations that were affected by the Phase I program. Many of these Phase I organizations have up to ten years of experience with their stormwater programs and this experience has shed a lot of light on many of the challenges facing any Phase II city. While an entire book could be written addressing the challenges of a stormwater program, this article focuses on a singular problem that is common among all Phase I cities and promises to be for all Phase II cities, i.e. program and information management.

Perhaps the single largest recurring challenge for anyone with an NPDES permit is keeping track of all the different pieces of information that make up a stormwater program. Non-point source pollution can derive from many different sources; therefore, the purpose of the NPDES program is to address as many of these sources as possible. Consequently there is a large and diverse set of information components that make up any stormwater program. Leave any one component out of the picture and your stormwater program may be a large failure. The following outline represents the basic detail that will make up all Phase II programs and represents the core information elements that must be tracked and managed.

NPDES Program Elements

  • Comprehensive inventory of many different infrastructure assets such as:
    • Outfalls
    • Stormwater facilities / BMPs (Curb inlets, Retention facilities, etc.)
      • Store inspection results for each item in the inventory
  • Ongoing inventory of construction projects
    • Track all new construction subject to NPDES regulations
    • Track re-development projects subject to NPDES regulations
      • Store inspection results for each construction project in the inventory
  • Public Interaction through various mechanisms
    • Partnering with or forming volunteer organizations
    • Engaging in different public education initiatives
      • Documenting the results of citizen involvement
  • Annual reporting
    • Summarize results of field inspection programs
    • Summarize results of Public involvement and education programs
    • Document corrective actions, enforcement actions, maintenance activities, etc
    • Evaluate effectiveness of current BMP mix and determine where improvements can be made

A careful consideration of the core requirements reveals that various parts of a stormwater program will involve different parts of any city organization. Clearly the Phase II program cannot be run by one person but instead will involve the cooperation and help of several departments within the city, as well as groups of private citizens. Another important consideration for any stormwater program is the fact that for every item in the list there will be a set of timelines and goals that must be met in order to demonstrate compliance with the overall program. This combination of data, events and personnel gives rise to the need for a sophisticated management tool, ideally a tool that will keep track of all the essential deadlines, dates, goals, inspections, inventories, etc. This leads us to our next question, ‘what are Phase I cities doing?’

Another important consideration for any stormwater program is the fact that for every item in the list there will be a set of timelines and goals that must be met in order to demonstrate compliance with the overall program.

As I have already mentioned there are approximately one thousand different Phase I cities across the United States. Many of these cities have been running their stormwater program for ten years or more. With that much time and experience it would be reasonable to assume that the information and program management challenge would have been solved. Sadly, this is not the case. In my experience (I have met with or spoken to almost 250 Phase I cities across the nation) there is a universal dearth of accomplished management systems in place to run any Phase I stormwater program. While this may seem hard to believe, the reasons become obvious once you examine the problem, and it’s from this examination that the big lessons can be learned for any Phase II city.

At the time the Phase I stormwater program started, back in 1991, there were no commercially available management systems designed to run a stormwater program. This was for obvious reasons—it was new! When cities began the work of actually implementing their stormwater program, they were usually faced with the problem of having too much to do, with too few staff. To fill in these gaps most cities turned to consulting firms to either run their program or to supplement existing resources. Ultimately, the stormwater program became the exclusive domain of engineering and consulting firms around the United States. As these firms gained experience, most Phase I cities continued to turn to them for help and recommendations with their program. Eventually many cities realized that automating the data and information management portions of their stormwater program would prove extremely beneficial. Inevitably they turned to their consulting firms for help in building a system. Some cities decided they would build their own, and hired the requisite staff. In either case, the end result was that these management systems could not communicate with each other, effectively destroying the possibility of electronic reporting, and they would eventually have to go through expensive upgrades and modifications as computer hardware and operating systems changed. Put simply, every customized data management system built for a stormwater program cost at least $250,000, which is quite an expense, even for a large organization. So now we can return to the question, why wasn’t there any standard, commercially available software on the market? Because the demand for such a system was intercepted before anyone would take the risk of building it from scratch.

Even though this may appear discouraging, the following example should make it clear that, despite the difficulties, using an information management system to run a stormwater program is the only reasonable choice to be made. Let’s consider an example of what may be a typical Phase II city. Assume a city with 30,000 residents east of the Mississippi River. A city this size could have 300 outfalls, 1,000 different stormwater facilities (think curb inlets, wet and dry retention facilities, swales, etc.), 100 new construction or redevelopment projects a year, 200 citizen calls or complaints each year about stormwater issues and maybe a couple of citizen meetings thrown in for good measure. Assuming that it only takes one page to document each of these items, you get a 1,600 page book that contains all the basic information about your stormwater program. Now that you have this book, you need to run an inspection program from it. How much work will it be to use this book to schedule and document inspection results? Let’s assume you are only going to inspect 20% of your outfalls and stormwater facilities each year. That’s 260 facility inspections each year plus 200 construction site inspections and the follow-up on the 200 citizen calls, for a total of 660 new pages added to your book. Are you starting to get the picture? You are going to generate a lot of paper! Even if your organizational skills are perfect, and you build the best filing system known to humankind, you are still going to face the obstacle of going through all this information each year to produce an annual report. For some Phase I cities, annual reporting has become such a problem that they hire outside help to write the report for them.

By now you should realize that managing your stormwater program from a three-ring binder is akin to managing your municipal books from a three-ring binder - its not impossible but it is a lot of work.

By now you should realize that managing your stormwater program from a three-ring binder is akin to managing your municipal books from a three-ring binder—it’s not impossible but it is a lot of work. In fact the problem can become so big it can almost justify the high price tag that comes with some of these ‘custom-built’ automated information management systems. The bad news is that the problem isn’t going to go away. The good news is that there are products beginning to show up in the marketplace that are capable of running either a portion or all of a Phase II stormwater program. Instead of discussing particular products it would be more helpful to identify the features a good product will have. This information will help you when it’s time to make your decision about what type of system (off-the-shelf or custom built system) to implement in your city. The following list demonstrates the minimum requirements for a system that would run your entire stormwater program.

Desirable Features for a Stormwater Management System

  1. It should allow you to inventory your entire outfall and stormwater facility system.
  2. Now that you have an inventory, it should automatically schedule your fieldwork and inspections. Ideally it will help you balance your workloads.
  3. Now that your inspections are scheduled, it should provide the tools to perform inspections, particularly inspections for items identified in the NPDES program.
  4. The system should give you the ability to document and detail any illicit discharge or connection discovered through your inspection process.
  5. The system should allow you to create an inventory of all construction sites and be flexible enough to work with any inspection ordinances that may be passed by your jurisdiction.
  6. Let’s not forget mapping. The system should have the ability to either work with an existing GIS system or provide you with some basic mapping tools.
  7. All stormwater programs are defined by a collection of control measures and goals associated with each control measure. Having the ability to store information about what was done for each goal in a program is an invaluable tool, especially when it comes to end of year reporting.
  8. End of year reporting. The system needs to have a robust report writing capability. Ideally it would have a large selection of ‘canned’ reports built in. A bonus would be the ability to save these reports into a format such as html or pdf, allowing you to quickly publish program data to the web.
  9. The ideal system should give you the ability to collect inspection data in the field electronically, and upload it back in the office. Cutting out the paperwork is the purpose of the system, and the time saved would easily pay for a laptop computer or PDA.
  10. Web publishing capabilities is also a big bonus. Don’t forget you need to involve and educate your public. It is estimated that there are now over 90 million household Internet users so what better way communicate educational materials to your public.
  11. Since your program will run between departments and involve multiple internal, and possibly external, staff your system should be able to accommodate this via networking and data sharing capabilities.

While the list above is the ideal, you may find that the system you are looking at doesn’t contain all of the identified features. Weigh carefully how important each feature will be to you and let that influence your decision; for instance, maybe your city doesn’t have a website so why do you need a system to publish data to the web?

There are few easy choices when it comes to implementing a stormwater program but one choice is clear, having an information management tool is going to save you both time and expense.

Finally, since the Phase II program is affecting so many cities, some companies have realized that by adding one or two features to an existing product, it can then be advertised that it will run a stormwater program. Don’t forget that a stormwater program consists of many different parts. Buying an asset management system to keep track of your infrastructure is a good thing, but it only addresses one part of the stormwater program. You will still need other tools to manage the rest. Having a custom designed system can still be a good idea, especially if it includes all of the features listed above. The major drawback to any custom designed system is how much it costs and how it will be supported three years from now. You don’t want to rebuild it every two or three years so it will keep running on the newest operating systems and computers. There are few easy choices when it comes to implementing a stormwater program but one choice is clear, having an information management tool is going to save you both time and expense. L&W

About the author: Since 1996 Mr. John B. May, Jr. has been President of DBSP Inc., a software company based in Fort Worth Texas. Prior to DBSP Mr. May was a corporate GIS director for a national engineering firm and a research director for GIS projects at the Department Of Energy’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. If you would like to contact the author with questions or comments regarding this article you may do so via email at jmay@dbsp.com.

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Monday, July 1, 2002 - http://www.landandwater.com/features/vol46no1/vol46no3_1.html