Stormwater Inspection and Maintenance: The Sleeping Giant

Jan. 14, 2004

Stormwater quality management for new urban developments commonly is required in most areas of the country today. The requirement to clean stormwater is driven by regulatory programs, such as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and its underlying legislation, the Clean Water Act.

Many developers view the implementation of stormwater quality controls as a prerequisite to obtaining their approvals for a building permit. Without the regulatory requirement, it is debatable whether many private developers would spend the money to implement such controls because the average person does not think stormwater pollution is a significant concern.

People understand and can visualize concerns related to flooding, polluted drinking water, and lack of sewage treatment. On the other hand, people cannot visualize the impacts of stormwater pollution. Many people just don’t believe rain falling on pavement and collecting in a storm drain is polluted enough to warrant treatment. Impacts of stormwater pollution are complicated further because they might manifest slowly over time and are related to changes in hydrology and chemical constituents. This makes showing a cause-and-effect relationship between individual developments and downstream water-resources impairment difficult—f not impossible.

Because of the lack of general understanding regarding the impact of urban development on stormwater quality, many private owners do not consider inspection and maintenance of stormwater quality practices important. Many onsite maintenance personnel who are supposed to be responsible for underground stormwater practices are not even aware of these devices.

To determine the level of awareness regarding stormwater inspection and maintenance, 62 private owners of stormwater-quality practices were contacted in two northeastern states to find out who was maintaining their stormwater facility and whether they would have it inspected if it was not being maintained. The method of contact involved phoning the owner to determine the person responsible for maintenance, sending a flyer about the need to maintain stormwater quality practices to that person, and then following up with that person to determine his or her interest in stormwater quality inspection and maintenance. Of the people contacted, approximately 35% admitted they were not maintaining their stormwater quality practices. An additional 55% would not return the phone calls. Only 10% of the people contacted indicated they were maintaining their stormwater-quality practices.

To further ascertain the level of interest in stormwater quality practice inspection and maintenance, a survey was mailed to 2,000 consultants and regulatory agency personnel. This mailing resulted in one phone call from an interested consultant and two inspection leads.

Actual inspections of existing stormwater quality practices indicate improper installation as a problem in addition to lack of maintenance. Inspections of 29 stormwater-quality practices revealed that approximately 70% of the practices had installation deficiencies, including improperly oriented access openings, incorrect parts, missing parts, and improperly installed parts. Maintenance was required or overdue for 70% of the 29 inspected practices.

As these numbers clearly show, inspection and maintenance of stormwater quality practices are lagging far behind the implementation of the practices themselves. Although there are requirements regarding inspection and maintenance, typically there is no enforcement of private-owner inspection and maintenance after construction approvals are granted.

Frequently, inspection and maintenance requirements are written into the conditions of approval and/or an inspection and maintenance plan is required for approval. Without enforcement, these plans are shelved and the conditions are forgotten. In many cases, the authority for enforcement is delegated from the state level to the local, municipal level, and municipalities often are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them or expect private owners to follow the order of conditions and do not stringently enforce stormwater inspection and maintenance.

Economics are a big reason behind the neglect of stormwater inspection and maintenance. Due to the economy, regulatory agencies have been downsized, funding has been cut, and there aren’t enough resources or isn’t enough capital for enforcement of stormwater inspection and maintenance. Businesses are struggling, and stormwater quality inspection and maintenance are at the bottom of their priority list. In such areas as Maryland, stormwater taxes fund county programs for inspecting stormwater facilities. This has helped ensure inspection of private stormwater practices—albeit at the expense of the general taxpayer.

There is a common agreement among regulatory agencies, consultants, and stormwater vendors that inspection and maintenance of stormwater quality practices are required to ensure their long-term operation. It also commonly is agreed that private owners should be responsible for inspecting and maintaining their stormwater quality facilities. There is less agreement, however, on who should be enforcing private inspection and maintenance and how practically to enfore compliance. Consequently, inspection and maintenance are not occurring for the majority of private stormwater quality practices implemented today. The lack of maintenance and the improper installation of stormwater practices result in the waste of capital expenditure for these practices and the absence of public environmental benefit. This trend can be expected to continue until there is a better mechanism for ensuring cradle-to-grave management of stormwater-quality measures in urban development projects.

About the Author

Graham Bryant

Guest editor Graham Bryant, M.S., P.E., is principal author of the Stormwater Management Practices Planning and Design Manual for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and is president of Envirocalm LLC in New Jersey.

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