Big infrastructure projects tend to be contentious. Over the course of my career, the hottest potatoes have been the expansion of a drinking water reservoir, building a new highway near a drinking water source, a 765kv powerline through the mountains, and the current issue of a proposed natural gas pipeline.
I and my fellow stormwater professionals have spent decades obsessed with Phosphorus. We have developed formulas and spreadsheets that tell us how many pounds of Phosphorus will run off of a parking lot or yard. We have explained the various ills created by too much Phosphorus flowing to rivers, lakes, and the Chesapeake Bay. We build contraptions called BMPs to trap it and disarm it. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL admonishes us to limit Phosphorus to 12.5 million pounds per year.
Given all that, I have struggled with actually envisioning Phosphorus. What does a pound of Phosphorus actually look like, much less 12.5 million pounds? I can’t look into a river and declare with any certainty, “there goes some Phosphorus” (except of course for the occasional algae left in its wake). What exactly is this sinister substance called Phosphorus?
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
(First four lines from “The World is Too Much With Us” by William Wordsworth, published 1807)
For some reason, this poem has been popping into my head of late. I recall clearly my high school English Literature teacher reciting Wordsworth’s poems and wondering what it meant for the world to be “too much with us.”
River: You arrived uninvited. At first, you were small and unimposing. Each year, your grew in strange and unexpected ways. On rare occasions, I have appreciated your presence. Perhaps I have even come to love you.
City: I came here because of you. It was your flowing current that allowed my currency to flow. That is what was most important. . .and still is. I, too, admit to feelings of love, but I think it would be better described as a love-hate relationship. You have been exceedingly kind and generous over these many years, but I have never gotten accustomed to that temper of yours.
River: At first, your floodplain contained the worst of my emotional outbursts. Then, you clogged them up with walls, railroad tracks, factories, and concrete. My emotions did not go away – they just got channeled in different directions, and I believe I took part of you. . .even a part of your soul. . .with me. I cannot apologize for these outbursts. They are a part of my nature.
City: Well, I have marveled at your lack of emotional control. But, who am I to talk.
River: Point well taken. For many years, I thought you hated me. You poured chemicals into my water and concrete on my banks. You chased away my friends; those with fins and wings. You turned your back on me, and all I saw was the ugly backside of what you call your “currency.” The most painful was when you plugged up my flow and stole my water.
City: How can I ever make amends for these things except by giving something back to you that was taken. It is hard to believe with all that has happened that I still love you.
River: And I love you. . .you Scoundrel!
The new development down the street on the banks of my local river is discharging untreated stormwater directly into the river. This river also happens to be impaired for sediment and bacteria. This is being done in full compliance with my state’s nutrient trading regulations, even though trades are not supposed to imperil local water quality. How did this come about?
To be clear, I was an early (but cautious) advocate of nutrient trading, especially as an important tool to meet pollutant load goals of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. With colleagues at the Center for Watershed Protection, I contributed to a couple of white papers on the topic, led the team that developed West Virginia’s off-site stormwater compliance guidance document (link at end of article), and served on the technical committee assisting Virginia with the regulations for off-site compliance.
The “cautious” part in the lead sentence is that trading is a valuable tool when guided by a regulatory framework that governs the rules of the road. Such a framework can help determine which sites are eligible for trades and how off-site pollutant reductions are verified. Among these crucial concerns is how local water quality can be protected when trades are made across a watershed.
I once asked why the religious service I attend regularly was so long. The explanation: the sages over the years wanted to add new prayers, but didn’t feel authorized to discard any of the old prayers. Thus, the service just got longer and longer.
I think something similar has happened with stormwater BMP specifications. Blending religion and stormwater management is probably untoward, but my real point is about BMP specifications and cost inflators. We have added new standards to the specifications, but not felt authorized to dispense with much of the old stuff. The upshot is that BMPs have likely become more expensive than they need to be.
In this context, a cost inflator is a design feature, analysis, or material that is required as part of a specification that doesn’t contribute to, or may even detract from, the practice’s performance, but increases the cost of design, installation, or even long-term maintenance.
Here we are. . .majoring in minors. . .again.
Watching videos of cars, huge chunks of asphalt, street signs, and all manner of debris cascading down Main Street in Ellicott City, MD. . .six to 8.5 inches of rain fell in just a few hours, and just two years after similar havoc along that very same Main Street. A week or two later, a similar “cell” hit Ivy, VA, just to the west of where I live in Charlottesville. In both cases, lives were lost, property destroyed, infrastructure disassembled, and economies disrupted.
Each of you can tell similar tales or at least knows someone who can.
These types of storms are not the familiar monsters – hurricanes with boys or girls names that announce their arrival days in advance. The ones I am referring to are the nameless spawn. They ride into town on swift steeds, stall out as if targeting a particular neighborhood with malicious intent, unleash their violence, and then depart a few hours later. These monsters are not new; there just seem to be more of them around these days.
Greetings respected colleagues: I have started a blog to explore various stormwater and watershed topics. Thanks for reading, and let me know your thoughts and if you have ideas or topics that you’d like to explore together.
Victor Frankenstein would feel right at home as a stormwater engineer. His success at cobbling together random body parts to create a living man/monster would put him in good stead to build a bioretention cell – with gravel, underdrain pipes and clean-outs, mulch, and plants all assembled from various origins to create a living stormwater practice. If this stormwater creature had a brain, it would certainly be the engineered soil media, as the media is responsible for processing pollutants, draining properly, and growing the plants.
If this is the creature that is lurking in our landscapes, is it a sustainable one? Put another way, why are we importing large volumes of an engineered soil media into our practices at great cost and use of fossil fuels, and are there alternatives to this approach?