Guest Editorial: Who Says You Have to Be an Engineer to Be a Stormwater Utility Manager?

July 1, 2002

Stormwater utilities are perceived by many to be in their embryonic stage of development. The last quarter of the 20th century brought new regulations and requirements in the water world, putting many demands on our profession. These regulations have forced us to think about water differently than we ever have before and about how we’ll manage it in the future. For years, the issues have focused around drinking water and its treatment and around wastewater and its processing.

Professionals have been looking at stormwater from the traditional approach for far too long, linking it to drinking water. The public-works function itself, until the last quarter of a century, has been static in its approaches to resolving issues and challenges in our industry. I am writing this column to suggest that stormwater is dynamic in nature, not static. It challenges our imagination and creativity. I will introduce a concept that you might accept or reject but that, in any case, I hope you will stop to ponder.

Stormwater utilities have been in existence only since the early 1970s. They first were developed to assist proactive communities address sensitive environmental issues. In 1972, Congress wrote and adopted the Clean Water Act in response to the declining water quality in the United States. As part of this program, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program was written to address nonpoint-source issues concerning the future of the watersheds. Larger urbanized areas and point-source contributors were taken into account first, and they sought funding sources to address these challenges. In response, a second wave of stormwater utilities was developed. Currently the NPDES program addresses more than 4,000 additional communities–not to mention total maximum daily load regulations and their effect on our watersheds. It is estimated that more than 2,000 stormwater utilities will be formed over the next two decades. Who will manage these operations?

I offer an analogy from my own experience. I began my career as a professional recreation administrator (and there are those who would say, “Maybe you ought to return”). In the late 1950s and early 1960s, recreation professionals were trained in physical education in the schools of education at most colleges and universities. These physical education curricula taught students to be teachers and coaches, not business managers. As the recreation profession grew from encompassing mainly athletics to including a total leisure service concept, communities began to develop recreation departments. Nationally these communities were seeking and requiring people with more than just an athletic background to operate their programs. These communities were seeking individuals with skills in accounting, communication, and asset management. In response, many colleges and universities answered the call and developed schools of recreation and, later, departments of leisure services. As the profession developed, specialty fields, such as therapeutics, outdoor recreation, sports, commercial recreation, and computer management, developed within these departments. Certain colleges and universities were noted for specific areas of concentration. Something similar to this scenario will also occur with stormwater management curricula.

I would suggest that our profession look to examples from the growth and development of other professions. I have had the experience of creating a stormwater utility from inception, including the institutional law review, because no other stormwater utility had ever been established in Georgia. After nine months of research and a book dedicated to the development of stormwater utilities, I propose the question, “What is a stormwater utility manager?” Based on my research–and many professional utility managers support the concept–I believe a stormwater utility manager does not require an engineering degree to operate the program. Utility managers need the skills to administer a budget, address the public, and communicate to the elected officials. One manager I surveyed, a professional engineer, remarked, “Let the engineers do what they do best–engineer–and let managers operate the programs.”

I recently spoke with a university professor, a leading authority on stormwater-related issues. He was adamant as he stated, “One must be an engineer to manage a stormwater utility, because stormwater management is so technical, the manager who was not an engineer could not understand the engineering aspects.” My response was “Is the president of your university an engineer?” I later spoke with one of the top professional engineers in the stormwater world, a consultant who by nature is required to “think out of the box,” and his view on this issue was “The world is full of hoops, and one has to jump through this one.” I am one for self-expression and honor both their opinions, but obviously I do not share their views on the managing of stormwater utilities.

I would conclude, through my extensive research and experience, that stormwater utilities will evolve past the “engineering dilemma.” Stormwater utility programs will incorporate hydraulic/hydrological models to calibrate basins, watershed assessments to characterize the watersheds, and inventories and maps of infrastructure and attributes. I believe colleges and universities will develop curricula not just for engineers but also for those who desire to operate these wide-ranging and nontraditional watershed utilities. These managers will successfully operate stormwater user-fee systems to provide the level of service that customers demand. I further expect that those institutions that continue offering only engineering courses will not prevail in the development of stormwater utility professionals. Institutions that address the issues as a dynamic process, instead of the traditional static event, will soar in the development of these professional managers. The holistic approach in managing our watersheds will be founded in these academic institutions. It is not acceptable or responsible to address our customers, by posing answers only in engineering terms, equations, and computerized models; the ratepayer desires more. Public education and public involvement require well-rounded professionals who can articulate the engineering community’s plans. The question is not simply “Who says you have to be an engineer to be a stormwater utility manager?” Even more importantly, the question is “Who will lead the way?”
About the Author

Brant D. Keller

Brant D. Keller, Ph.D., is director of public works and utilities for the city of Griffin, GA.

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