CPESCs Take It to the Top

Jan. 1, 2002

Each year at the International Erosion Control Association conference, more and more erosion practitioners are enticed one step closer to applying for certification as professionals in erosion and sediment control (CPESCs). Hopefuls often buttonhole me to ask how they will benefit from being certified. Often they are dreaming of promotions, pay raises, new market sectors, and increased stature among their peers. This always makes me smile, for in my 25 years of practice in the field, I would say that certification is not about rewards but about leadership, outreach education, and service to community.

Those of us who put the initials CPESC after our names serve as ambassadors to a workday world in which the principles of practice in our field are yet to come into sharp focus in many areas. Foremost, we are educators and community builders who provide insight, perspective, standards, and models to assist in informed decision-making. We serve on boards and advisory committees, review manuals and technical publications, advise government, undertake research, and serve as expert witnesses. We develop erosion policies and education materials, advise designers, speak at conferences, publish papers, and mentor other professionals.

Second, we are interdisciplinary networkers who strive, in our own professional practices, to ensure that the appropriate blend of technical skills is assembled to develop solutions to erosion problems at both macro and micro scales. We practice in clearly defined fields of specialization and are careful not to snap up every project that comes our way if our skills are not suited to it. Instead, we endeavor to help customers become knowledgeable consumers of erosion control services. We take time, whether or not we are paid to do so, to learn about each caller’s needs. Then, instead of subjecting this person to a rolling referral, we connect him or her to others in the field whose specialization is in line with his or her needs (see Note at the end of this article). Every contact is an opportunity to build respect for the field and those who practice in it.

Interdisciplinary Approach

In the broad field of erosion control, we must understand and speak the languages of the diverse professionals with whom we consistently interface: planners, civil and geotechnical engineers, designers, landscape architects, hydrologists, soil scientists, contractors, and others. We must be cognizant of the professional breadth of our fellow practitioners, for the success of erosion control programs and projects hinges, in some measure, on how well the principles of our field can be integrated into master planning and design in many fields. In a sense, we must give away our knowledge over and over again in order for it to become commonplace in the approaches of other disciplines. Our success depends, in part, on the success and actions of others.

This interdependent nature of EC and other fields reminds me of a time in my life before adulthood completely took hold, when I lived briefly on the island of Maui. A bunch of us pooled our money to buy a hulk of a ’52 Chevy, which could be coaxed into delivering us twice daily to certain select surfing coves. Just getting to the beaches required heroic efforts, for the car had only one forward gear. We had to park it on little hill and roll it down until it gathered enough speed to catch in third gear. We stationed people at strategic intersections below to control cross-traffic so that we could get out of town without stopping. The radiator had a rather fast leak, so the journey involved stopping at hilltop locations en route to plug leaks and feed it water from 20-gal. jugs we stowed in the back seat. These stopping places were peppered with the kind of thorns that always fall with one sharp spike pointing upward. Passengers who hoped to have a second ride on this expedition had to be good pit-crew members adept at changing tires, looking out for cops, lugging water, chewing gum very fast to render it to a makeshift plug for leaks, and participating in split-second coordination the other crewmates. The success of the entire operation depended on teamwork, incredible logistical finesse, perseverance, and dedication. But what glorious rewards: long moments of ecstasy on translucent, foam-laced swells that toppled slowly as if in a lingering dream and tumbled toward heartbreakingly beautiful beaches.

Community Involvement

Now that the field of EC is beginning to reap its own glorious rewards, the continued dedication of CPESCs in their communities is needed more than ever to support the teamwork, logistics, perseverance, and dedication that will help keep EC programs going down the road, no matter what their model, make, or year. Wherever people will be working to develop better funding mechanisms to support erosion programs or to refine erosion policies, practices, monitoring protocols, or training, CPESCs can provide a historical perspective and technical knowledge to help get the job done.

Take, for example, the question of how to fund municipal erosion control programs for construction activities. Those of us who have been participating in policy development regarding this topic over the years bring an enormously valuable perspective to community discussions by summarizing the experiences of other communities that already have been down this road. We can provide EC program funding models for consideration by working groups. In this way, we can assist communities to arrive at appropriate starting points and not lose years in “wheel-inventing” activities. Similarly, instead of standing by while municipalities labor to develop best management practices (BMPs) from scratch, we can assemble model practices for their review and suggest ways in which they can be retrofitted for local needs. In such ways, CPESCs assist with EC technology transfer and education in the communities where we practice.

Technical Assistance

Similarly, we can bring information to the table that can help keep a decision-making body from going down the primrose path of innocent assumptions. For example, some years ago, an idea emerged in committees developing both state-level and local EC policies: Contractors could be rewarded with fee-reducing “Green Cards” if they attended a workshop about construction erosion control. Because of a fluke in the way one resulting program was structured, it turned out that contractors were avoiding Green Card education like the plague on the grounds that their liability would be increased.

In the West, where working meetings among stakeholders are the foundation for consensus building about public policy, CPESCs increasingly are being invited to present information about practices that bear on water resource protection. To receive such an invitation is a huge accomplishment for anyone practicing in our field, and to be a presenter is a worthy résumé item. So my roundabout answer to certification hopefuls is that rewards will eventually come to those who are willing to serve–not just once, but as an a priori element of one’s professional practice.

It’s About Service

The secret is that this is remarkably easy. In almost everything we do, in every walk of life, there is erosion at the interface of the natural world and the way people use the world. If you are a boater, chances are that there is a wave erosion problem at your marina. If you are a tennis player, there is probably an erosion problem at the park where you play because of the way people use the trails or park their cars or the way maintenance equipment accesses the site. If you work with forest roads, in all likelihood there is a problem with sediment delivery to streams or wetlands. Whether you design subdivisions or formal gardens, work with utility installations or dryland wheat farming, there is going to be an erosion problem whose resolution will need a knowledgeable, personable person who can pull together the people and the technical resources to address it. Better yet, a CPESC can help decision-makers understand how to make different choices next time and provide them with the tools to do it. So my bottom-line advice to certification hopefuls is: Embrace your field! Make it your passion! Become an expert in a few very focused things, and then give away this knowledge over and over again in as many ways as you can. Rewards will follow.

Education Is Key

Newly minted CPESCs receive a form on which they are required to record the services they provide to their communities and the education they undertake in each three-year period. The importance of ongoing education cannot be overstated because the field is constantly changing. My personal perspective is that if we are not always learning, we might as well quit and go home. Even if we never design a bioengineered streambank or specify a series of rolling dips, we need to be informed about their applications and the considerations for their design and know where to go for specialized help on such features if we judge they are needed. Erosion Control provides an endless menu of detailed articles on specific EC applications and materials, and the annual conference of the International Erosion Control Association sparkles with the highest-quality training sessions available on the market today. These, and the regional chapter conferences, are invaluable education resources for CPESCs and beginning EC practitioners alike, and the vendors at these events have proven themselves to be among the best-educated EC professionals in the world.

Another essential continuing-education resource is professional newsletters and journals published in fields that range from restoration ecology to landscape architecture. It behooves all of us to build and refresh our EC libraries by getting on mailing lists. There is an unsung world of BMPs in the literature my office receives each week from universities, federal resource agencies, state government, nonprofits, private businesses, and various listserves.

Professional Ethics

Even if we do the utmost to keep informed about EC, we need to be humble about what we know and don’t know. Just as there are many ways to achieve the same results using a computer, there are many ways to prevent or solve an erosion problem in the field. People come at the solutions from many disciplines and with different methods. And just as at one time we knew less than we do today, we need to be careful not to belittle or marginalize those who are just beginning or who are using a different set of tools. Instead, it is incumbent on us to extend professional generosity by offering alternatives where to do so would result in greater project integrity. The code of ethics for CPESCs requires that, in the course of our work, we never harm the reputation of another professional.

Big-Picture Thinking

Compelling forces often require us to practice EC in compromised situations, usually at the micro level. We are called in because there is a huge problem and a solution is needed right away. Or the design is already complete and what is being required of us is to throw erosion control at it, no matter what. These can be truly compromising circumstances in which to practice the art and science of EC. For this reason, we need always to be cognizant of the bigger picture, the larger context in which we are practicing. What’s more, we need to look for opportunities to focus on this context with our clients, with regulators, and with the public we serve.

This is one of the primary obligations of our professional practice, for it helps advance the field by transferring knowledge to others. Because of my training in geomorphology, I frequently gasp at the problems that arise because of decisions people made about siting roads, facilities, parks, and large developments. In my practice as a CPESC, I try to find appropriate ways to enter into dialogue with my clients about the interface between surficial process and land-use decisions. I work at recycling my technical knowledge into decision-making matrices for planners, into sets of BMPs for maintenance and operations people, and into design guidelines and other tools that can be of immediate use. These tools are presented as options that clients might choose to apply. Every “Yes” choice a client makes is a huge victory for the field as a whole.

One Victory at a Time

Yet not all decisions are made in the way we might hope. Many exigencies prevent the “best” choices from being made in many cases. If, in our practices, we begin to see that common loopholes in zoning, regulatory language, engineering technology, or whatever it is are hindering the application of sound erosion-prevention practices, it behooves us to get involved. This is where the rubber hits the road. We need to get on that committee, give a presentation, offer alternatives, prepare educational materials, or do whatever it takes to move the field forward one more notch.

Embrace Opportunities

Erosion control has come into its own in the past decade. Client groups increasingly seek qualified professionals to participate in policy deliberations, predesign decisions, development of BMPs, and formulation of site-specific solutions to erosion problems. It is an incredible time to be practicing in the field. Many of us who have been tenacious in our work for progress since the ’70s are witnessing a groundswell of interest in erosion and an institutional eagerness to deal with erosion in the forms of planning and zoning, green infrastructure, wildland and greenspace management, and exciting new goals for dealing with stormwater. Each of these offers tremendous opportunities for creative problem-solving. Those who seek certification as erosion professionals should be prepared to bring fresh perspectives and unflagging energy to these challenges and be eager to make long-standing professional commitments to the communities in which they live and work.

Note: For a free copy of the current international directory of erosion control products and services (which includes a listing of CPESCs), e-mail Forester Communications at [email protected] or the International Erosion Control Association at [email protected]

About the Author

Martha S. Mitchell

Martha S. Mitchell, CPESC, is principal of ClearWater West Inc. (www.clearwaterwest.com), consultants in erosion and natural resource planning in Portland, OR.