In recent conversations with various people in the stormwater world, I have been bringing up a question. The question I have been asking is, "if we were to find funding ear-marked for stormwater pollution, where and how should we apply the money?" The answer is typically something along the lines of "more technology." We live in an age where we are enamored of technology - our phone, our computers, our self-driving cars. I love it, too, but there is a problem with this answer.
We have created a lot of technology over the last 20 years to serve the stormwater market. We have Chitosan filters, Perlite filters, Zeolite filters, swirl chambers, flocculants, oil/water separators, and on and on. Now not to say that there's not another cool device waiting to be invented that could solve a lot of problems, but the fact is there are a lot of devices out there now. I suggest that there is a very different problem that is causing stormwater pollution.
The problem is maintenance. We at CatchAll Environmental look at a lot of stormwater systems. The problem is not that the systems we look at aren't employing state-of-the-art, well-designed stormwater systems. The problem is that these systems have not been maintained. In most cases, its a 90% chance that any site we are called to look at will be choked with sediment, hydrocarbons, organics, paper cups, and so on. The sediment is the biggest issue, because it chokes the stormwater quality systems, rendering them ineffective in removing pollutants.
I believe that if we were to find ourselves with an infusion of cash and the goal of improving the stormwater quality being discharged into our lakes and rivers, we should use that money to fund inspectors for municipalities. Currently, the larger municipalities are fortunate if they put one or two inspectors on the street, and the smaller ones can't afford to put any inspectors on the street. Often, if they do have an inspector, they haven't been educated sufficiently on stormwater issues and find themselves ill-equipped to understand the condition of stormwater systems.
The NPDES regulations have been described as an unfunded mandate. That is exactly what they are. We have a lot of technology out there, millions, even billions of dollars worth of it. The problem is it no longer functions because it has been neglected. Ponds are overgrown, bio-swales no longer work, storm filtration systems are full of sediment, and oil/water separators are choked with oil.
I'd love to find a scholarly report showing the effect of $1 invested in stormwater technology vs. $1 invested in stormwater maintenance. It doesn't exist - I've looked. Still, I'm not sure we need it. Our intuition tells us that no matter how incredible the technology is, it will not perform its job after a short time if it is neglected. How does your phone perform if neglected - the battery dies, you need to update the operating system, etc. Stormwater technology is the same - as it is used, it needs to be maintained. It needs to be cleaned, it needs to be inspected, and so on.
No matter how much technology is introduced into the stormwater world, none of it will work over time without regular maintenance from a knowledgeable service-provider. Let's not stop the inventors out there from inventing the next great stormwater quality product, but let's also remember that there's no system that can continue to operate without regular maintenance.
Jeff McInnis, P.E.
Founder, CatchAll Environmental
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