Help for aging, neglected infrastructure

January 2013 » Features » PROGRESSIVE ENGINEERING
Rethinking how we manage and pay for stormwater
Joanne Throwe
Stormwater infrastructure requires regularly scheduled maintenance, routine repairs, and a set schedule to manage replacements when parts wear out.

Managing stormwater can be compared with owning a car, albeit a very expensive car. To keep a car running properly requires regular maintenance and occasional repairs or replacement of parts as a car ages. The life expectancy of stormwater infrastructure is obviously much longer than a car but still requires regularly scheduled maintenance, routine repairs, and a set schedule to manage replacements when parts wear out. The difference between a car and stormwater is attitude.

"Most people wouldn't dream of neglecting their car the way they do their stormwater systems."

Most people wouldn't dream of neglecting their car the way they do their stormwater systems. Stormwater generally falls under the category of out of sight, out of mind until something goes wrong with the system. Also with stormwater, the benefits of having a good operations and maintenance program are probably less visible than with a car but of equal importance. Usually, deficiencies in a good stormwater management program become quickly apparent when there is a stormwater infrastructure system failure or a system is no longer in compliance with state and federal regulations; either of which can result in high costs for local governments to pay for something that most don't recognize as being very beneficial to citizens and local businesses. When a system has been neglected for what may be decades, the sudden price expected to pay will definitely be substantial.

The question is no longer how to avoid the high costs for improving our stormwater programs. The question now: How do we better manage stormwater in a way that is the most cost effective, efficient, and best investment of our community's limited resources? To answer this properly, we have to begin rethinking how we currently manage and pay for stormwater. We need to treat our stormwater system more like we do the family car.

In our work at the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center (EFC) we help many municipalities that struggle to better understand how to properly manage and pay for a more comprehensive stormwater program with limited resources. After decades of almost no substantial investments being made to many stormwater systems, the estimated costs are thought to be too big for many cash-strapped communities.

"The question is no longer how to avoid the high costs for improving our stormwater programs. The question now: How do we better manage stormwater in a way that is the most cost effective, efficient, and best investment of our community's limited resources?"

In the Mid-Atlantic region where the EFC is located, stormwater has become a big concern and top priority to many. Take Berlin, Md., for example. Berlin is a beautiful and picturesque town located less than 10 miles from the beach vacation destination of Ocean City. Berlin is so quaint that it was chosen as the setting for a Julia Roberts/Richard Gere movie in the late 1990s called "Runaway Bride." Berlin has a population of fewer than 5,000 with a Main Street that is reminiscent of Mayberry. It also has stormwater management costs during the next 10 years anticipated to be more than $8 million, based on a recent EFC report (http://efc.umd.edu/assets/berlin_stormwater_feasibility_study_final_report.pdf).

For such a small town with aging infrastructure, this isn't that unusual. What is unusual, however, is that Berlin is not required under any state or federal permit to manage its stormwater but it is nonetheless hopeful to implement a stormwater utility fee in early 2013, potentially the first of its kind on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. After decades of very little money spent on stormwater maintenance and anticipating considerable capital improvements needed in the coming years, the entire community as well as elected officials are ready to be designated leaders on the Eastern Shore in building a sustainable stormwater program that will be well managed to benefit future generations.

Other small towns in Maryland such as Federalsburg, Centreville, Hebron, and Oxford also are taking the initiative to estimate future expenses required to improve how they manage stormwater. The EFC is helping several communities through this process, which may not necessarily result in a recommended fee or tax but will at least assist these communities understand the true costs associated with providing a higher level of service and better manage their stormwater systems.

For larger cities in Maryland such as Bowie and Salisbury, which the EFC is also currently working with, keeping in compliance with their NPDES MS4 Permits is their main driver, which is expected to cost several million dollars a year. Added to this for many in the Chesapeake Bay region is an additional cost of meeting their local Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) obligations.

For larger urban counties in Maryland such as Anne Arundel, Baltimore City, and Howard, the anticipated price tag for managing stormwater through 2025 has been estimated to be at least a couple hundred million dollars – money that will never be found coming solely from the general fund, a place where most communities get their stormwater funding from now. In Maryland right now, 10 of the larger counties – known as NPDES MS4 Phase 1 communities – will be required under House Bill 987 to implement a stormwater utility fee by July 2013. A dedicated revenue source to pay for stormwater management will soon become commonplace for much of Maryland.

Strategic collaboration
Finally required to re-examine how to better manage and pay for stormwater, some Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions are considering what others in the wastewater and drinking water sectors learned long ago – it makes sense to collaborate. Faced with such high cost estimates of managing stormwater or possibly incurring high penalties for non-compliance, working together makes sense. Collaboration on a county-wide scale, a watershed scale, or at a minimum, collaborating with several neighboring small municipalities means being strategic and thinking about the efficiencies that can be gained through partnerships. It is much easier to make businesses, residents, and even elected officials understand the importance of better managing and paying for stormwater when more than one jurisdiction is sharing the exact same message.

Working together brings other benefits as well. Costs can be reduced when estimates on projects that cross municipal boundaries are combined; equipment can be shared as well as dedicated capacity to handle such tasks as annual reports, grant writing, and organizing outreach. Education materials can be developed more cheaply, effectively, and more efficiently for several rather than for one. Watershed organizations, a great asset to any stormwater program, will be much more willing to secure grants, offer training, and promote stormwater for a watershed rather than for one small municipality. A stormwater manager will have to report on some of the minimum control measures if they are working together on meeting their permit requirements rather than doing it alone.

The University of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center organized a photo contest in Berlin, Md., to conduct community outreach about stormwater.
"It is much easier to make businesses, residents, and even elected officials understand the importance of better managing and paying for stormwater when more than one jurisdiction is sharing the exact same message."

Six municipalities in Lancaster County, Pa., are working together to try this regional approach to managing stormwater as they embark on analyzing the many benefits of this new approach. The Shenandoah Valley also has four counties ready to explore the same strategy in 2013. It doesn't mean that everything about each other's program will be shared. That would be slightly unrealistic. It does mean, however, that by using a regional approach to managing stormwater, each will take advantage of lowering costs whenever possible; creating efficiencies within their systems; and leveraging existing resources – all key elements of effectively managing and paying for stormwater.

Know your infrastructure
The biggest hurdle that many communities seem to face right now is understanding exactly what the true costs are for managing stormwater in the long term. Asking an elected official or a community to pay for stormwater when the total costs are not really known is almost impossible. Therefore, how do you begin to assess how much something will cost five to 10 years out, especially when a system hasn't been properly evaluated and maintained in decades?

In Maryland, 10 NPDES MS4 Phase 1 communities will be required under House Bill 987 to implement a stormwater utility fee by July 2013. A dedicated revenue source to pay for stormwater management will soon become commonplace for much of Maryland.

The answer may be found right in the stormwater system itself. Getting to know your infrastructure is probably the best first step in assessing true costs. It sounds simple enough, yet seldom does the EFC find a community that has a detailed and up-to-date inventory map of what an entire stormwater infrastructure system looks like. An outfall map, yes; an inventory map of the entire stormwater infrastructure mapped out, not very often. With a comprehensive inventory map done by many engineering firms these days, a community could know the age, condition, and costs, and begin to prioritize necessary replacements and repairs of their stormwater infrastructure system before it fails and costs twice as much in emergency repair costs. Green infrastructure projects also could be planned and implemented at the best possible locations based on these maps. Green infrastructure will help to maximize the ability to control water flow and filter stormwater onsite, a great place to start.

In a recent meeting with ARRO Engineering and Environmental Consultants located in central Pennsylvania, the EFC team was able to find out so much about Marietta Borough just by reviewing an inventory map recently completed by ARRO. The entire stormwater infrastructure was mapped with cameras, cleaned, and assigned cost estimates for areas needing repairs. Marietta Borough is going to be able to prioritize spending on its stormwater program and have its very limited stormwater dollars well spent on areas in most need of repair around town. It also will have the additional benefit of being a more attractive community to new businesses that may want to locate in Marietta rather than another community where the condition of the stormwater infrastructure is less well known and at risk of failure.

"Finally required to re-examine how to better manage and pay for stormwater, some Mid-Atlantic jurisdictions are considering what others in the wastewater and drinking water sectors learned long ago – it makes sense to collaborate."

The costs for a full inventory map like the one ARRO developed for Marietta Borough can range in price from $2 to $4 per linear foot, but large communities hesitant to shell out this kind of money all at once could also consider doing a section of a town or city each year. It would pay for itself in no time and help to answer the question of costs. Taking it a step further and considering a full watershed-scale map would also go a long way in lowering costs by working together, getting access to grants and loans, and at a minimum, help to get a better handle on necessary capital improvements during the next 10 or so years by working with other jurisdictions.

Another answer to paying for stormwater is to better engage the private sector as a way of lowering costs. Lynchburg, Va., has an effective program known simply as SAGE (www.sagecertified.org), which started as a road beautification program but has turned into being something much more. SAGE began in 1991 as a citizen's initiative to improve the rather ugly appearance of an expressway running through Lynchburg. The program secured private donations from large and small businesses alike that in return received signs with beautiful gardens along public rights-of-way that are landscaped year-round. After installing more than 50 gardens and collecting more than $1 million in donations, the concept of SAGE was successfully launched. It recently has been expanded to incorporate green infrastructure into its roadside gardens. This concept is now being piloted in other parts of Virginia and elsewhere in the region. It is an innovative solution that incorporates private donations to help reduce the total cost of managing stormwater.

Americans have long become accustomed to effectively managing and paying for drinking water and wastewater systems. The thought of what would happen to our water supply without proper management is inconceivable. The way in which we manage and pay for stormwater needs to shift toward the way we treat our other water systems in this country. It is as important, relevant, and the only way we will move closer to sustainability in managing our water resources.

Stormwater BMP maintenance agreements
The Stormwater Equipment Manufacturers Association (SWEMA) drafted a new maintenance agreement for use by state and local government agencies in setting an ordinance requiring the maintenance of all stormwater Best Management Practices (BMPs). Stormwater BMPs are practices – land-based, proprietary, or natural – that provide a level of treatment and/or storage to improve the water quality of the watershed. These practices in one form or another are installed on every project. Like a car, these practices require routine inspection and maintenance.

The sample Operation and Maintenance Agreement includes templates for inspection checklists for each type of BMP, including water quality buffers. The inspection checklists can also serve as an inspection report for each facility. These templates are general guidelines and may be modified by the design engineer or plan designer as needed for site-specific conditions

Download a copy of the sample Operation and Maintenance Agreement from the SWEMA website at www.stormwaterassociation.com/image.aspx?doc=72

Joanne Throwe, is director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Finance Center (www.efc.umd.edu) in College Park, Md. She can be contacted at jthrowe@umd.edu.

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