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Citizen's View: Draft Stormwater Management Manual vs. real-world stormwater management

When rain falls on urbanized land, at least three things happen that are different from when it falls on natural land: less water soaks into the ground, more water flows over the surface and off the site, and more pollutants are transported toward natural areas.

As communities like Lake Oswego become increasingly cognizant of the detrimental effects associated with these three differences, more is being asked of developers, land owners and taxpayers to assume the responsibilities and costs of mitigating those perceived effects. That, and providing updated design tools for engineers, is essentially what the city’s new draft Stormwater Management Manual is all about.

Stormwater “utilities” are fundamentally different than, say, a water or sewer utility, because the primary facilities are not centralized like a treatment plant; instead, they are widely distributed in terms of location and maintenance responsibilities. So it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to what this proposed manual says, especially regarding:

-- What kind and size of a projects trigger a storm water permit?

-- What are the design requirements and when is an engineer necessary?

-- Who will own and maintain stormwater facilities?

-- And who pays for it all?

Providing some historical context will put things in perspective.

As recently as 30 years ago, the impact of rain falling on urbanized land didn’t really drive civil engineering design. Back then, stormwater facility design could be characterized as being all about “control” and were mostly indifferent (or ignorant) to the truth that stormwater runoff contributed to polluting rivers and lakes, killing fish and accelerating soil erosion.

In and of themselves, however, those old stormwater designs were a model of functional efficiency. The design goal was to collect excess surface water, channel it into underground pipes (that were designed to be self-cleaning), and then discharge all that dirty water into the nearest drainage system or riparian area.  After that, it became someone else’s problem, or so our subconscious thinking went.

These systems have operated for decades with little required regular maintenance. And for the most part, cities absorbed those maintenance costs under general public works maintenance budgets and therefore had no need to create a separate stormwater “utility.”

Today, thanks to our increased awareness of our interconnectedness with nature and, more impactful, the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, it is now law that we construct and maintain stormwater systems that fully remediate the three urbanizing affects. That’s no laughing matter, because these systems — juxtaposed to the environmentally damaging but functionally robust systems of yesterday — are expensive to engineer, expensive to construct, expensive and/or impractical to maintain and expensive to regulate.

If you can get your head around all that, it becomes easy to see why it would lead to the creation of a separate stormwater utility and a monthly bill to boot.

Editorial space does not allow me to explain why these new treatment systems are so expensive and questionable regarding their functional efficacy.  But it should be obvious that all filters (especially stormwater filters) require regular cleaning to stay functional. And just as obvious: If those filters don’t get cleaned or replaced, the results will be worse than having nothing at all. Moreover, we’re talking about rainwater here. That’s a whole lot of water and a whole lot of filters to keep functioning, forever.

The implementation of the Clean Water Act, and the altruistic but insidiously increasing provisions we adopt to be in compliance with it, needs to be fully vetted by the public for as long as it takes to align our environmental ambitions with an honest assessment of what the public can realistically maintain. Let me restate that more plainly: These facilities need constant “adult supervision,” and most adults are not intrinsically interested in assuming that responsibility. They have enough on their plates already.

Others may disagree, but the poor maintenance record so far is already abundantly clear. And so, when it comes to designing these facilities, those designs must be mostly guided by a truly honest assessment of real-world maintenance expectations. Period. Anything that exceeds that behavioral limitation, regardless of our green sentiments, will result in a colossal waste of time, money and valuable real estate.

To me, that priority is more important than compliance with the Clean Water Act.  My intent is not to diminish the ideal of achieving ultimate environmental sustainability, but achieving it through public compliance requires more than just central planning. We need to give it time and start by having appropriate real-world expectations.

David C. Poulson, the branch manager for PACE Engineers in Lake Oswego, is vice chairman of the city’s Development Review Commission and president of the Kruse Way Rotary Club.