Why is the Illinois Department of Agriculture Determining Stormwater Rules for Cities?

Winter flooding across a farm field

Recently I wrote about the draft release of Post-Development Stormwater Runoff Performance Standards for Illinois. And in discussions with colleagues over the last few weeks, I have not heard any positive support from anyone who has a professional background in stormwater management or regulation. Instead the consensus among stormwater professionals regarding the draft is that the entire document should be rewritten and the recommendations reconsidered because they are based on few facts, will not work, and will increase project costs significantly. So it makes you wonder how did something that so poorly addresses the reality of stormwater management get this far, and why is the IEPA seriously considering accepting recommendations from a group with a majority of members who have absolutely no background in stormwater management or regulation?

To begin answering this question, you need to look at who is running the show. This was one of the first questions I heard from everyone – why in the world did the IEPA arrange to have the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts (AISWCD) lead this effort? There are so many counties who could have been consulted instead – they bring decades of stormwater management and regulation to the table. Yet none were contacted. They could have reached out to engineers who have spent their career formulating stormwater designs, managing stormwater projects, and maintaining and regulating stormwater facilities. Yet only one recognized engineering expert with a background in all of these was picked to be in the workgroup.

So again, why the AISWCD? And just who is the AISWCD? Their website explains the group is

"a not-for-profit organization governed by a board of directors who represent the state’s 98 Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts."

So the purpose of this private group is to represent the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Illinois – a group of governmental agencies. In 2010, the group received $231,663.09 in dues from these districts. So the next question is what are the Soil and Water Conservation Districts? (Of course a side question is why does a group of governmental agencies need a private, non-profit group to represent their interests, but that's another story.) The districts were created through an act of the Illinois Legislature and appear to be part of the Department of Agriculture. There is an advisory board to oversee these districts – here is the State's page indicating those board members: http://appointments.illinois.gov/appointmentsDetail.cfm?id=256

As you can see, the members of the advisory board for the Districts are supposed to come from Agriculture – not stormwater related professions. This is particularly interesting to note when you take into consideration that one of the first statements made at the public hearing held in Aurora regarding the new stormwater recommendations was that anything related to agriculture was not on the table – would not even be considered. It is also interesting when you read the recommendations and see that there is no mention of relying on the State's 303d list of impaired waters to make any decisions. Of course when you look at the State's official report regarding land uses contributing to pollution of these streams, you will see that agriculture is one of top contributors – much more so than what is contributed by stormwater runoff from communities and significantly more so than what is contributed from highways.

Sources of Stream Impairments
Potential Source Stream Miles Impaired
Source Unknown 7097
Atmospheric Deposition – Toxics 3050
Crop Production (Crop Land or Dry Land) 2576
Channelization 2471
Agriculture 1395
Municipal Point Discharges 1374
Loss of Riparian Habitat 1245
Urban Runoff/Storm Sewers 1207
Animal Feeding Operations 652
Livestock (Grazing or Feeding Ops) 290
Combined Sewer Overflows 253
Highway/Road/Bridge Runoff 110

Table Source: ILLINOIS INTEGRATED WATER QUALITY REPORT AND SECTION 303(d) LIST, 2012

It also makes you wonder when you ask a work group member what the goals were for the recommendations and cleaning up the environment or improving our water quality was not the answer. So to summarize, the IEPA put the wolf in charge of the hen house – oh, I mean, the IEPA put the Department of Agriculture in charge of deciding stormwater standards and regulations to be imposed only on home and business owners, municipalities, and developers. And because no obvious goal has been stated in the recommendations, it makes you wonder is the goal really environmentally related or is it a protection of agricultural interests cloaked in the benevolent perception of helping the environment?

 

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Illinois Considers New Stormwater Regulations

Inlet FlowIf you live in Illinois, it’s important for you to be aware of a set of recommendations for changes to stormwater regulations in Illinois. Because if the Illinois EPA (IEPA) adopts the recommendations as submitted, everyone in Illinois has the potential to be financially impacted by their implementation. And even though these recommendations have the potential to significantly increase costs to the majority of people in Illinois, few people were even aware they were being developed. Unfortunately, these regulations are complicated and comprehensive so I’ve created a general summary in this post with a more detailed look at the recommendations in the next post (draft of that post). I encourage you to at least read through this post because, if implemented, this will impact everyone living or doing business in Illinois. It is very important to know and understand what is being considered.

Background

Those of us who work with stormwater design and regulations first found out about the proposed recommendation about a month ago from one of the committee members. He was one of only two engineers who were on the committee with the rest primarily being members of environmental groups. This engineer sent out an email letting us know that it was important for us to attend a public meeting where the draft recommendations were to be released. He also encouraged us to submit comments because while he was able to prevent through his participation on the committee some unreasonable suggestions from making it into the document, there were still significant problems with the proposal. Initially the IEPA was only going to give the public until November 23, 2012, to comment. This date has been extended to November 30, 2012, although it really is still not enough time to adequately inform people about these recommendations and give them time to respond. The link to the IEPA fact sheet with the public meeting announcement, a link to the proposed recommendations, and a suggested comment email you can send are at the bottom of this post.
 

General summary of the recommendations

The workgroup recommended that sites to be developed in Illinois would be required to retain the first 1.35 inches of rain that falls on the area of impervious surfaces located on the property. The site would not be allowed to release this water off the property at all. An example of this is if you were to build an average size home on an average size lot, you would have to build a stormwater facility on your property to capture and hold approximately 3000 gallons of water (this amount of water fits into a space measuring about 10 feet by 10 feet by 4 feet deep). The design of this facility would have to be done by a licensed professional engineer and the drawings recorded with your building permit. While the recommendations also suggest requiring a licensed engineer to prepare as-builts and certify the facility was constructed as planned and record these drawings with the state and local agencies, the recommendations also indicate a possibility of waiving just the as-built drawing requirement for single family homes. Instead homeowners would be required to self-certify that the facility was built as designed.
 
However, the workgroup recognized that not all sites might allow the construction of such a facility – for example, in a downtown area. In these cases, property owners would have to provide an off-site mitigation facility.This mitigation site would have to be located somewhere in the same region as the building site.
 
The other component of the recommendations is the requirement of an operation and maintenance plan. This plan must show how the property owner will maintain and operate the facility for the life of the property and provide for methods to measure and prove the facility is performing as designed. The recommendation is that this plan become a recorded covenant attached to your deed with responsible parties identified in the document. And this plan will be required whether the facility is located on the property or on a mitigation site. The plan must also cover such items as weeding, irrigation, replacement at the end of the facility’s useful life, snow storage, and de-icing practices. A budget for the plan’s implementation must also be included. It is suggested the owner track these costs and submit them to the IEPA on a periodic basis.
 
The workgroup does not believe any legislation is needed to implement these regulations. Therefore it is suggested the IEPA enforce them through existing programs. This means that most likely local governments will be required by the IEPA to enforce the regulations locally. Because of the lack of staff at most local governments and the amount of inspections and oversight and enforcement required by these recommendations, many governments could be forced to create a stormwater utility or at a minimum raise taxes to their citizens to cover the cost of these regulations.
 
The other problem for local governments is that these regulations will apply to any project involving impervious surfaces like roads. So state and local governments will have to capture and hold water along roadways. Because there usually is not room to do this along a typical road corridor, the recommendations suggest the purchase of land along roads for these stormwater facilities. This could lead to governments having to secure land from adjacent property owners for this purpose. And in many cases it could lead to the installation and required maintenance of natural plantings and swales along roads in front of homes. The costs for the additional land, design and construction of these facilities, and the perpetual monitoring and maintenance of their performance will significantly increase government expenditures which most likely will be passed along to property owners through taxes or stormwater fees.
 

General problems with the recommendations

Overall the problems these recommendations could cause are potentially numerous. Below are just a few problems/issues, in addition to those noted above, that might be faced by each of the following groups:
 
Homeowners: They will have additional costs during construction of anything that will create a hard, nonpermeable surface such as buildings, driveways, pools, patios, etc. They will have a liability attached to their deed naming them as a responsible party for the operation and maintenance of a stormwater facility either located on their property or on someone else’s property if mitigation was needed. They will need to follow their operation and maintenance plan, provide and track the budget for its implementation, and possibly submit this to a governmental agency. Should neighbors complain they are not adequately maintaining their own facility, they could be subject to inspection and possible enforcement and fines by a governmental agency. In addition, if living along a public road, homeowners might be required to sell property to governmental agencies for stormwater facilities. These might include swales with natural plantings located across the frontage of each home.
 
Business owners/property owners: They will face the same requirements as homeowners except for the additional requirement to submit final as-built drawings that are prepared and certified by a licensed engineer.
 
Well and septic owners: They could experience changes to groundwater tables and performance depending on facilities constructed for nearby development and roadways. Septic fields could experience greater amounts of water while well owners might find their recharge areas affected by the elimination of natural rainfall. Or wells could experience an increase in water flow and risk the possibility of direct contamination from sources not previously tied into the groundwater in that area.
 
All citizens and the governments they support: Because government is a property owner, all roads and any linear projects involving nonpermeable surfaces could be subject to these requirements. This means that costs for many projects could rise significantly as additional property must be secured and stormwater facilities constructed. Because all this adds time to the design phase, projects will no longer be implemented in a timely fashion. There is also a good chance that the IEPA will require local governments to enforce these regulation on private property. If so, most local governments do not currently have the resources to do so. This means that there will be a good chance local governments will either have to raise taxes or impose a stormwater fee to pay for the staff and resources needed to monitor, manage, and enforce these requirements.
 
County Recorders/Realtors/Lawyers/Bankers/Lenders: The recommendations include a requirement to record the operation and maintenance plan as a covenant on the property. This means an additional document to be recorded at the county recorder’s office along with a new document to be recorded each time the responsible party on the plan is changed. This could also become an additional document that must be checked for compliance and accuracy by title companies, banks, mortgage companies, realtors, and lawyers, etc any time a property is sold or refinanced. In addition, because of the problems and potential damages that could result from introducing stormwater into the ground in a manner and at a rate that is not natural for a specific area, there is a potential for increased litigation. 
 
 
 
 

What can I do?

It is important for people to comment on this topic. Otherwise, the recommendations will be submitted to the IEPA as they are currently proposed in the draft document. Below is an email form that can be used to send in your comments to the workgroup. I've included suggested language, but it can be changed by you just by clicking in the message area and editing the words. To submit, just click the send button at the bottom of the email box. At the bottom of this post there is also a share button – make sure to share the post with all your Illinois friends to encourage them to also send in comments:

 

kelly.thompson@aiswcd.org
Your name and address as entered below will be added. You do not need to add your name above.
13 people have taken part in this action. Please contact pwg@publicworksgroup.com if you have any difficulties or queries.

 

 

 

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Flood Zone Game

Over the last several months, I've been working on a drainage course built on the 3D GameLab platform. The purpose of the course is to offer people information about drainage and flooding so they can better understand these issues and how to protect themselves and their property. The 3D GameLab framework, developed by Boise State University, is incredible because it gives anyone the opportunity to set up classes and incorporate fun learning elements using almost any online tool. There's also a badge and reward system available. When the class is finished, I'll post a more complete article about the course. But for now, I wanted to share a game I created for one of the course quests (it's also my very first attempt at making a game so it's very simple and basic). It was developed using the Construct2 software and is based on one of their tutorials. The object of the game is for the player to use a blow dryer to prevent a flood by drying up the rain drops. So while the game can offer a fun diversion, it's also designed to demonstrate the futility of fighting a flood without adequate preparation. 

 

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Modeling Stormwater BMPs in Second Life

Jered Spitteler's Virtual Stormwater Basin

 

Recently I met another civil engineer who works for a county in the State of Washington. He contacted me through the virtual world of Second Life where he is known as Jered Spitteler. Jered has been building a model in Second Life of one of the rain gardens maintained by his agency. Fortunately I had a chance this weekend to meet him at the virtual site of the basin he built. When I first arrived, Jered explained that he has re-created the basin and immediate area, including two homes that lie on each side of the property. Immediately inside the gate of the fence surrounding the parcel, there is a sanitary sewer lift station which belongs to a private franchise utility. The basin, along with its slopes, lies beyond taking up most of the area inside the fence. For now, Jered has placed some information near the top of the slope so people can learn about the best management practices currently in use at the site. However, he said his agency is researching the possibility of implementing a permaculture approach to improve maintenance of the facility.

The ease of modeling something like a stormwater facility in Second life is beneficial for educational purposes – both engineers and citizens can visit these sites to learn how and why best management practices are implemented and how they should be maintained. But it's also useful as a tool for engineers like Jered and myself to use for visualizing a design or concept. And, as Jered pointed out during my visit, because it's more than just a CAD drawing on a computer, engineers like us can contact each other and schedule a virtual site visit like Jered and I did today to discuss ideas and share experiences and walk through the design.

Jered said he has shown his build to his co-workers who thought it was pretty cool and had potential to be used for other projects. I think we both believe at some point in the future walking through our designs in a 3D environment will be a common task in the engineering process. If you are an engineer who is already in Second Life and are interested in seeing Jered's build, I'd encourage you to contact him for a tour. And if you haven't yet ventured into a virtual setting, but are interested in checking out his site, I'd be happy to schedule some time to help you first get familiar with Second Life. Just send an email to pwg@publicworksgroup.com or DM or ping me on Twitter: @pbroviak.

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Is the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Really a Good Idea?

Wastewater Basin

As a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I regularly receive information and notices proclaiming their annual "grading" of our nation's infrastructure. There is even a website to promote this effort: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/. My opinion on this might not be popular with my colleagues, but frankly I have never thought this report was valid or a good idea. Finally after reading a LinkedIn thread about how engineers get no respect and a related link criticizing the annual report card, I decided to share my thoughts, as an engineer, on this public relations effort.

First of all, imagine going to the Infrastructure Report Card website as an average citizen – not an engineer. On the site there is a listing of all the different categories of infrastructure we are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining such as water, wastewater, dams, bridges, roads, parks, etc. Not one of them has a grade above a C and the average is a D. Now imagine going to the medical association's website and seeing a listing of items for which they are responsible such as cancer, common cold, fractures, etc. and a related listing of grades. How would you feel about the medical profession if they gave themselves all C and D grades for those? Because on the face of it, that is how it looks to someone who is not involved in the industry – engineers are grading themselves for the work they do and the infrastructure for which they are responsible, and can't manage to get above a D average! Then we wonder why we get no respect!

Now, I realize those responsible for setting up this effort would respond by explaining that no, it's not a grade on our efforts, but a wake up call that government is not giving us enough funds to adequately build and maintain the infrastructure. Because that's what this is really all about, trying to convince legislators they need to funnel more money into infrastructure. But I don't think it's working, and it should be no surprise why not. If I was funding work by a group and the reports kept coming back every year that the work was underperforming, I would start asking some questions such as why is your work failing, what progress is being made with the funds, and what else can be done besides throwing more money at it? 

As an engineer, I am well aware of the need for funding, but as one who has worked in a severely economically depressed city for many years, I also realize that part of my job as an engineer is to figure out how to get the most from the money we have and explain to the elected officials the trade-offs for the different funding levels. Because that is what engineers are supposed to do best – analyze a problem, figure out solutions, attach dollars to them, and let elected officials decide which level of service they want. Then we build the best system we can with the money we receive.

In the last city where I worked, I would have graded our infrastructure efforts as an A because by working together, we were often able to figure out ways to get things done at a very acceptable level with very few dollars. If you drive through that community today, just about every road is in great shape while the neighboring community, whose coffers were always filled with millions more tax dollars than ours, has a proliferation of crumbling roads. This shows that while money is an important component, a successful system also requires people in government working together and making the right choices for the public good with patience and understanding of the goals and the ability to implement creative solutions.

And my past employer is far from unique – the fact is that many cities have systems that are well managed and maintained. I can't imagine anyone traveling across the U.S. coming to any conclusion other than the infrastructure in our country is very good. The true measure of success is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of us make it to work each day without even thinking of the roads we drive on, the water we use to get ready for work, the wastewater system that disposes of all the water we use, the stormwater systems that prevent any rain from keeping us from traveling safely, etc. So the real question is, how are we really measuring this grade?

I get the impression ASCE determines this grade by assuming a life for our assets and assigning a replacement cost then comparing that to funding levels. And because these levels don't match the replacement costs, we must be failing. The flaw in this is that just because something like a water main is more than 50 years old does not mean it is at the verge of imminent failure. But according to ASCE, if politicians don't give us money to rip it out at year 51, that main drops to a D. I've worked in cities where mains were 120 years old and were still delivering water to homes and businesses with no breaks or signs of failure. That's not a D, and it is irresponsible as an engineer to lead people to believe that it should be replaced strictly based on its age. Yesterday an engineer with a national consulting firm told me that in their experience they've noticed the older a main gets, the less chance it actually has of failing. And based on my experience, I agree. We also heard from that engineer and another at a different national firm, that most water main failures are occuring in mains built in the first few years after World War II because there was a decrease in the quality of materials at that time. And I can't understand how anyone can assign a life to PVC water main pipe since we don't have enough experience with it yet to really know how long it will last. Based on all this, it appears age is definitely not the only factor in determining the need for replacement.

So while it is a good idea to have some report of the state of our infrastructure, let's not fabricate the data just to get more business for our profession. And let's not use a grading system that leads people to believe we are all failures at the job with which the public has entrusted us. Instead we should choose to use an accurate and reasonable method of identifying and assessing our assets and reporting the actual projected costs to keep up with the management and maintenance of our system. Because no engineer I know really believes the Infrastructure Report Card is an accurate reflection of our nation's public works systems, it's not achieving the purpose for which ASCE has developed it, and most of us are not too happy that an organization representing our profession is falsely leading people to believe we are failures at our jobs.

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A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 71

Day 71

Culvert Lining Project 

Failure of HDPE Snap-tite Culvert Joint

Today the project engineer for our culvert lining project told me that the pipe joint had opened up in our culvert lining project. We had the pipe manufacturer, Snap-Tite, visit the site to look it over and offer a solution. But after seeing how it failed, I would not recommend in the future trying this type of pipe for this application. It's really unfortunate because up to this point the project had been turning out so well. Hopefully the manufacturer can come up with a method of making sure this does not degrade any further from what it has already done. I've included a photo we took to show how the joint moved open on the top and bottom. And I included a the name and manufacturer in this post so anyone considering using this method in the future is aware of the issues that can come up if they choose this method of installation. I can't say at this time what caused the joint to open so I am not sure if it is a construction problem or a manufacturer problem. But for me, it would not be worth taking a chance that this could happen again by specifying this method in the future unless we end up with an acceptable resolution.

Water Main Extension

We also met with the consultant who had prepared the incorrect easement for our water main project. Before meeting, I went out to the site to check their work. They definitely had missed the fact that the property owner had purchased part of a railroad right of way. So they took the 90-foot long easement we required and just moved it west. And instead of starting at what is actually the easterly property line and going west 90 feet, they started at the original property line and went west. This would have put the easement into the building. We also noticed during our meeting they had misspelled the word "Easement." Fortunately the consultant said he would check everything their subconsultant had done and fix it so it is right at no extra cost.

Email Issues

Last week our IT person notified a few of us we were using too much memory on the server for our emails. Of course I had the most because when I started working here, I asked if we had a limit and was told no. So I rarely deleted anything so I could easily find information. But this problem crashed our email server so now I have to bring the amount of storage I use to under 4Gb. So far I am down to 10 from 17 and have 6 to go! Seems like going to Google would be a good idea if we are operating this close to the limit! I can get almost 8 Gb of storage for free from them and 25 Gb for only about $50 a year! And lately it seems like everyone I talk to lately is moving their business or agency over to the Google Enterprise tools.

Development Meeting

We also had our development staff meeting. Today we discussed a few of the projects that we have been reviewing. For both, we have sent comments back to the developers and are waiting for responsed. We also discussed some sign regulation issues along with the expansion of our commuter parking deck and construction of the community gardens.

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