When Cookie-Cutters Won't Cut It
Industry Guest Blogger, Seth Brown, Joins The Innovation Conversation 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 In some instances, these flows are captured and treated by outdated and ineffective stormwater management practices that reflect the priorities and approaches of previous generations, while in other instances, runoff flows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