Remembering the Importance of Public Outreach and Participation

We’ve all heard the expression “can’t see the forest for the trees,” but when’s the last time you can remember it applying to yourself?  As a stormwater engineer, I’ve spent 15 years focusing on the design of natural systems and manufactured devices that treat and/or infiltrate post-construction runoff, and there is ample opportunity to get lost in the minutiae associated with these technologies.  The constellation of my profession is comprised of many stars, including such esoteric details as discrete pollutant removal efficiencies, land use implications, dissolved metals speciation, and operational head loss.  As fascinating as I find these topics, however, it’s all too easy for me to get lost in the complex specifics and lose focus on the big water quality picture of which they are merely a part.  Stormwater management goals and outcomes affect society at large, and it therefore makes sense that the first two of the six minimum control measures of the NPDES Phase II requirements are:

  1. Public Education and Outreach
  2. Public Participation/Involvement

All the fancy engineering stuff I do with post-construction runoff control doesn’t get mentioned until number five.  With so much of the contributing infrastructure literally underground, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most people don’t immediately consider the vast network of drainage pipes, treatment systems, and infiltration galleries that they drive across when heading to the grocery store.  Nor do they necessarily recognize the function of the bioretention cell between the parking spaces or the pervious pavement beneath their feet.  On the other hand, almost anyone living within the reach of a permitted MS4 has seen a “No Dumping, Drains to River” sign installed on a catch basin.  In actuality, basic public education is far more effective and powerful a tool in the management of stormwater runoff than the most sophisticated treatment or infiltration BMP.  While considering this, I recalled one of my own “forest for the trees” moments.

It was a rainy Saturday morning, and I had stopped by the office with my then 4-year old daughter to catch up on some work that I had neglected to finish during the preceding week.  We had visited the library first to load up on books so she would be occupied for a couple hours while I sat behind a computer monitor.  After a little while, she called me to come look out the window, where a small construction crew was excavating a narrow utility trench leading to one of the offices on the other side of the parking lot.  The backhoe was bringing up chunks of red-brown earth from the subsurface, and the rain was washing the silty soil directly to a low-lying catch basin, leaving a long, muddy stain. 

“That looks like chocolate milk,” she said.

“Well, it’s not,” and I explained how the silt was getting swept into the catch basin, where it would travel through a pipe to the constructed wetland behind the buildings, which was a great habitat for frogs, dragonflies, and water birds.  “They should be doing more to contain that mud so that those animals’ homes are protected.”

With that, I went back to the design I was completing, only briefly contemplating what would happen if I confronted the situation across the way.  After a little while, I was finished working, and we packed up our books and snacks and headed toward the car.  While I was loading the vehicle, my daughter began to walk over to the construction area.  I hurried after her and watched with a mixture of horror and admiration as she strode up to the crew foreman and pointed to the soil running down the pavement.

“You should be doing a better job making sure this mud doesn’t go into the drain,” she declared.  “It all gets washed out into the wetland and messes up the homes of the birds and the frogs and the dragonflies!”

To my surprise, the foreman looked at her intently and said sternly, “you’re right.  It’s bad practice.  We’ll do a better job.”

Within minutes, some straw wattles and filter fabric were installed, the chocolate milk stain stopped flowing to the wetland, and I left, proud of my little girl and marveling at the simple power of public outreach (if somewhat embarrassed at my own failure to administer it). 

While I’d like to recommend a spirited four-year old to every municipal phase II permit holder needing to fulfill their public outreach and involvement requirements, the truth is that most of these entities lack the resources to build independent stormwater education programs.  This is why it is critical to support the non-profit and volunteer networks that perform these crucial duties.  I live in Vancouver, Washington, where the City contracts through a great example of such an organization, the Vancouver Watershed Alliance, to meet some of its outreach needs.  Through neighborhood grants, homeowner incentives, and visible, public projects, this group’s advocacy does more to mitigate the negative effects of stormwater runoff than the most complicated engineered, post-construction system I’ve ever designed.  And there are hundreds of such organizations across the country, fulfilling a vital role in the advancement of our societal water quality goals. 

As stormwater professionals, we all play our individual parts to promote a cleaner aquatic environment.  The part of public education and community engagement, however, is one that we should all be engaged in if we truly want our goals to be actualized.

Image Source:  Vancouver Watersheds Alliance.  Artist: Jamie Lutz.