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When Cookie-Cutters Won't Cut It


Industry Guest Blogger, Seth Brown, Joins The Innovation Conversation describe the image                                                                                                  The Water Environment Federation (WEF) has recently launched a new strategic direction,with innovation being a major focus under this new vision.  While the term “innovation” is used these days as liberally as “sustainability” was used a few years ago, WEF intends to put meat on the bones of our new innovation initiative by supporting approaches in the water sector that challenge the status quo and breakdown barriers that impede the creative thinking needed to address the water stresses our country, and the world, face now, and to a greater degree, will face in the future. 

WEF has been a leading force in the treatment of municipal and industrial wastewater by providing high-quality technical products and programming to professionals and practitioners in this field.  But the problems facing this sector prior to and in the two decades following the establishment of the Clean Water Act are of a different nature than those the current generation of water quality professionals face.  One EPA official stated at a recent WEF event that, “stormwater is where wastewater was in the 1960’s,” and I think there’s a lot of truth in this statement.  The monitoring and treatment of water in closed systems, such as a wastewater in separated sewer systems flowing to treatment plants, is inherently a more direct effort as it flows in and through a controlled environment. 

To contrast, stormwater runoff, that is generated by chaotic climatic inputs, flows across the landscape through a variety of flowpaths transporting pollutants to downstream collection systems and receiving waters.  In some instances, these flows are captured and treated by outdated and ineffective stormwater management practices that reflect the priorities and approaches of previous generations, while in other instances, runoff flows across sites that were constructed prior to the development and enforcement of stormwater regulations.  In still other cases, runoff is collected and transported in combined sewer systems where they overwhelm treatment facilities leading to bypassed discharges.  In all of these instances, we see an almost endless variety of scenarios that affect pollutant sources, loadings, rates and downstream impacts.  And in many urban areas and systems, we see that urban stormwater runoff comprises a significant, and growing, portion of overall pollution in waterways.  To say that the bar has been raised in the water quality field is an understatement.

 So what is needed to successfully address this new generation of water quality challenges?  While there are many challenges, one primary need is out-of-the-box thinking.  WEF recently held a meeting called “The Future of Stormwater,” which gathered many top thinkers in stormwater today to discuss the most pressing issues in stormwater now and in the future.  One point brought up time and again in this meeting was the need for stormwater professionals to be allowed to be broken free from the chains of cookie-cutter design requirements.  While the basic concepts behind stormwater treatment are easily grasped, the application of these concepts on the site level is more of a tall order.  Challenges in limited space and constraints due to existing (and planned) infrastructure along with difficult soils and unfriendly slopes can create conditions where cookie-cutter approaches just won’t cut it.  In these instances, stormwater professionals should be able to be given the freedom to unleash the technical knowledge they’ve gained and develop non-standard treatment designs that will out-perform those limited practices and approaches available through the use of standard practices. 

If our new stormwater paradigm calls for a greater emphasis on performance than on the practices used, we should focus more of our energy on those approaches that deliver the best performance, regardless of the status of the standards – or, we should more readily integrate non-standard practices into designs and ordinances, and we should also consider revising our procurement process to encourage the use of new and innovative stormwater management technologies and approaches.                            

Seth P. Brown, P.E.

Stormwater Program and Policy Manager

Water Environment Federation


Great article and right on point. I have been trying to get local water management agencies to change from the business as usual "cookie cutter" approach for months without much success. I think we might be gaining ground.  
The comment "your out of the box project does not fit the plan guidelines" kills too many good ideas. 
Keep the dialog going.
Posted @ Tuesday, March 27, 2012 9:57 AM by Larry R. Curran
Larry - thanks - we'll get there. There's really no option but to raise the bar on this.
Posted @ Wednesday, March 28, 2012 1:34 PM by Seth Brown
I agree fully. I work on parallel issues with agriculture. The out-of-box strategy I was able to employ is the basis of a new economic concept called "symbiotic demand". It is also applicable to urban issues, but not as directly as ag. To view:
Posted @ Saturday, March 31, 2012 8:18 AM by Tim Gieseke
For the past two decades we have been developing internationally recognized and award winning methods and technologies to banish cookie-cutter development financed entirely by income derived by contracts with over 300 developers seeking to create better neighborhoods. These methods and technologies have evolved by utilization in over 730 neighborhoods in 46 States and 15 countries by harnessing the natural terrain often replacing storm pipe with surface flow and a demonstrated average reduction in infrastructure of 25% without reducing density. A few months ago we replanned a development of luxury houisng in Siberia with a 19% decrease in street (length) and a 13% increase in density compared to the prior plan. In Costa Rica we decreased street by 42% while banishing monotony and increasing both space and density. 
So why is the world so cookie cutter? The CAD software EVERY consultant uses is purchased on speed and enforces design that replicates a pattern, and the easiest pattern is the grid (curved or straight). Our very regulations are based upon minimums so the result is minimal development.  
What we discovered is that by EXCEEDING minimums using technology far more advanced than CAD, we can begin to measure efficiency and discover more efficient methods. As far as surface flow, our methods provide the space for it without a density loss that would occur with other methods, but the biggest roadblock to surface flow is twofold. The reality check - Engineers can press a few automated buttons for pipe flow with almost no liability, there is no such automation for surface flow even though it may save the developer millions of dollars which brings us to the second point: Engineers charge on percentage of construction cost. Fees for computing surface flow if natural ground was harnessed could (in theory) at 6% = $0, a 2 million dollar storm sewer system = $120,000 in engineering fees. 
Feel free to contact us and we will share much more. Another good source and do a search on Rick Harrison on that blog for many articles on this subject. 
Posted @ Saturday, March 31, 2012 8:52 AM by Richard Harrison
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