Making Noise Behind the Scenes
Is it better to be the proverbial squeaky wheel, or to perform your function so smoothly that most people don’t even realize you’re doing it? With the changes EPA’s new stormwater rule is about to bring, the question is more important than ever for many municipal stormwater programs.
In a recent editorial in our sister publication, Water Efficiency, editor Elizabeth Cutright mentioned last summer’s preparations for Hurricane Irene; when the damage turned out to be less than predicted, the storm became known as “the disaster that never was,” and officials who had urged people to evacuate were called “over-prepared.” This uproar, followed by bored nonchalance, reminded me of the alarming forecasts surrounding Y2K (remember that?). Airplanes were expected to fall from the sky and the stock market to plummet if our computer systems failed to move smoothly into a new century; but once the date was past and the worst problems failed to materialize, there was a collective, somewhat sheepish chuckle about all the panic over what, after all, turned out to be not such a big deal.
It would have been a bigger deal, though, without all the preparation—much of it mundane reprogramming and patching—that went into making the systems continue to work. For most people, improvements to stormwater infrastructure are similarly unnoticeable. It’s only when something goes really wrong, like major floods or repeated combined sewer overflows, that people take notice. For just that reason, some stormwater managers have remarked that the best time to launch a stormwater utility or raise fees is right after the rainy season—preferably one that has brought a lot of flooding.
The new stormwater rule, due to be released late this year and finalized next November, calls for some new strategies in dealing with stormwater: greater use of green infrastructure as well as retrofits of already-developed sites. Most of these measures will also be incremental and undramatic; part of their purpose, after all, is to reduce the need for big-ticket items like larger conveyance systems or combined sewer separation projects. And yet, they will still cost money; there will be new performance standards to meet but fewer large projects to show the public how the money is being spent.
So part of our goal—like that of officials preparing for a hurricane, or of programmers working to avert the problems of Y2K—must be to help the public understand what happens if we don’t invest enough. Our overburdened traditional gray infrastructure, along with changing weather patterns that cause the “100-year storm” to occur more and more frequently, require responses that, in their own way, are as necessary as preparing for Irene or Y2K. But we have an advantage as we educate the stormwater-fee-paying public: The ways we deal with stormwater not only avert floods and CSOs but also can bring other benefits, such as adding green spaces and tree canopy to urban centers. These are the kinds of perks you don’t get from preparing for a hurricane, and they’re well worth squeaking about.
What are you doing—or what do you plan to do differently once the new stormwater rule takes effect—to let people know about your program’s goals and priorities? Tell us about it by leaving a comment at www.stormh2o.com.
Author's Bio: Janice Kaspersen is the editor of Erosion Control magazine and Stormwater magazine.