Erosion, Engineering, and Accountability

Dec. 16, 2014

For construction sites that undergo land-disturbing activities, it is necessary that development and implementation of stormwater pollution prevention plans (SWPPPs) occur to meet Construction General Permit (CGP) requirements. These plans are also known as sediment and erosion control (S&EC) plans. Regulatory agencies frequently require such plans be developed and signed by a licensed professional engineer (P.E.).

Unless they provide professional accountability with such submittals, regulatory agencies may be allowing P.E.s with any specific expertise (e.g., civil, mechanical, nuclear, chemical, or structural) to develop and sign S&EC plans. If this occurs, regulatory agencies may inadvertently be fostering the development of inferior plans for contractors to implement on construction sites.

This article explores why some regulatory agencies are requiring that only P.E.s develop, sign, and review S&EC plans, while excluding other qualified professionals from completing the same tasks for which they may have greater expertise and skill.

Engineering Practices
When reviewing regulatory policy for developing S&EC plans, one often finds that they must be completed using “good engineering practices.” To assess what is meant by good engineering practices requires having a definition for the engineering profession, which the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology Inc. (ABET) provides:

Engineering is the profession in which knowledge of mathematics and natural sciences gained by study, experience, and practice is applied with judgment to develop ways to utilize economically the materials and forces of nature for the benefit of mankind.

While the ABET definition provides an excellent description for engineering professionals, it also describes many other technical professions. For example, environmentalists, hydrologists, agronomists, biologists, soil scientists, geologists, and many other professionals also apply their knowledge of mathematics and natural science “for the benefit of mankind.”

Sheppard and others (2006) provide three excellent postulates for “good engineering practices”:

  • the integration of process and knowledge to some end
  • a social activity of teams working in concert towards a common goal
  • a variety of forms of communication, from written to oral, and from formal to informal

While the above are associated with engineering, they also represent practices utilized by all competent professionals. Essentially, the above postulates represent “good professional practices” for those that apply their expertise and knowledge of mathematics and natural science for the benefit of mankind.

EPA Requirements for Qualified Designers and Reviewers
When assessing EPA’s 151-page 2012 CGP, one will find seven references to “good engineering practices” and only two specifying the services of an engineer, with none indicating engineers are more qualified than other professionals to develop S&EC plans. Only for New Mexico is there an indirect reference to involving an engineer, but only after having appropriate training:

The SWPPP must be prepared in accordance with good engineering practices by qualified (e.g., CPESC certified, engineers with appropriate training, etc.) erosion control specialists familiar with the use of soil loss prediction models and design of erosion and sediment control systems based on these models (or equivalent soil loss prediction tools). Qualifications of the preparer (e.g., professional certifications, description of appropriate training) must be documented in the SWPPP.

EPA definitely wants qualified individuals to be accountable for S&EC plan development. Unfortunately, EPA fails to define within the 2012 CGP what constitutes someone being qualified to develop such plans. Interestingly, EPA does provide a requirement for qualified inspectors (see EPA 2012, Section 4.1.1) by specifying such an individual must

  • be knowledgeable in the principles and practice of erosion and sediment controls and pollution prevention,
  • possess the skills to assess conditions at the construction site that could impact stormwater quality, and
  • possess the skills to assess the effectiveness of any stormwater controls selected and installed.

It seems logical that regulatory agencies would expect designers and reviewers of S&EC plans to demonstrate they have at least the same qualifications as inspectors. However, this is not always the case! As a result, submittals of S&EC plans may be occurring by individuals who may not possess even EPA’s minimal inspector requirements.

It is important to note that EPA puts a legal burden on permittees of a CGP by requiring them to certify that “qualified personnel” properly gathered and evaluated the information contained within an S&EC plan (EPA 2012, Appendix I, Part I.11). Thus, it is possible that permittees may be in violation of EPA requirements when they certify “non-qualified” individuals to develop and sign S&EC plans.

In summary, engineering professionals do not have a monopoly on what is required for good professional practices. Thus, it is a misnomer to assume engineers are more qualified than other professionals to apply their expertise and skills in developing or reviewing S&EC plans.

Developing Effective Sediment and Erosion Control Plans
What does the development of S&EC plans entail? Essentially, such plans consist of a narrative section and accompanying drawings for contractors to implement on construction sites. Often, narrative guidelines are very prescriptive (e.g., in California and Georgia) in their requirement for information, data, and calculations, whereas drawing guidelines can result in excessive illustrations, confusing detail sheets, and unclear specifications.

Most states and/or regulatory agencies often use their own guidelines for developing a narrative or may emulate what appears in EPA’s (2007) template. They also usually provide checklists that often result in the creation of redundant, excessive, and voluminous material that few individuals have time to review or assess. As a result, S&EC plan narratives often become “cookie-cutter” submittals on a variety of topics ranging from risk analyses of water-quality issues to detailed best management practice (BMP) descriptions.

Comprehensive S&EC narratives do little for development of effective and practical drawings. Yet, it is the S&EC drawings that designers and reviewers must professionally develop and review so that contractors can implement and maintain BMPs in a cost-effective and practical manner.

Regulatory agencies usually provide check lists for S&EC drawing submittals. Unless these checklists are comprehensive and clearly written, they often result in designers developing cookie-cutter submittals that can be confusing, not practical, and that often cause non-compliant situations for the contractor. However, such submittals provide a trouble-free method of ensuring S&EC plans will be approved with minimal problems, even though they may not be effective or practical to implement.

In defense of the cookie-cutter syndrome, checklists do provide guidelines for designers to ensure adequate information is submitted to address potential environmental problems. However, approximately 70% to 90% of what appears on checklists is associated with narratives about pollution prevention or identifying site conditions (e.g., topographic features, soils, hydrologic information). Only about 10% to 30% of checklist requirements are related to the professional development of construction drawings, which is the most important part of an S&EC plan.

As discussed by Fifield (2011), designers and reviewers often overlook for whom they are developing and reviewing S&EC drawings. It is critical that S&EC drawings always be developed for contractors! If the contractor does not comprehend the drawings or determines that BMPs cannot be implemented in a practical manner, then non-compliant conditions may become the norm instead of an exception while construction activities occur.

Finally, it is important that S&EC drawings adhere to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle. The challenge for designers is to incorporate regulatory requirements and create KISS plans that are effective, practical, and cost effective. Equally challenging for reviewers is to assess S&EC drawings for meaningful and practical content to ensure they meet regulatory requirements while providing environmental protection.

Requirements for Developing Effective S&EC Drawings

Being “qualified” means professionals must be able to design and review effective S&EC drawings by having an adroit understanding of the following:

  • what BMPs to install, inspect, and maintain
  • when and where to install BMPs
  • BMP limitations
  • when to remove BMPs

Knowing what BMPs to install, inspect, and maintain requires knowing how to complete drainage assessments as well as being aware of the risk in, and limitations of, using sediment and erosion control BMPs on construction sites. This requires applying the knowledge of natural science in a practical and effective manner; incorporating the expertise of hydrologists, soil scientists, geologists, engineers, and other professionals; and working closely with contractors.

Knowing when and where to install BMPs is critical for developing effective S&EC drawings. Knowing when to install BMPs requires designers and reviewers to be familiar with scheduling issues. They also must be cognizant of where sediment and erosion control BMPs have optimal use and have the ability to assess whether the use of specific mitigation measures will cause non-compliant conditions. Often this knowledge is best obtained by working with and communicating frequently with contractors and inspectors, as well as obtaining professional advice from agronomists, biologists, soil scientists, and others.

Knowing BMP limitations is essential for developing effective S&EC drawings, because all mitigation measures have their shortcomings. Designers and reviewers must be cognizant of BMPs that might divert runoff and cause downstream flooding and sedimentation. Both also need to understand the limitations of stabilizing hillsides and drainage channels by assessing seed mixtures, use of mulches, soil conditions, climatic conditions, and so forth. Such items (along with many others) require completing site inspections before and after severe climatic events and conferring with those having expertise on using BMPs to control sediment and erosion.

When to remove BMPs is a topic often omitted from S&EC drawings. Removal of sediment control BMPs is just as important as installing them. Clear guidelines must exist for contractors that identify when removal of sediment control BMPs should occur to ensure erosion control measures become established in an optimal manner. Often, these guidelines require designers and reviewers to complete inspections of post-construction conditions.

The above implies that the professional design of S&EC drawings requires having access to a variety of expertise and skills, including:

  • Hydrology
  • Biology
  • Agriculture and silviculture
  • Physics and chemistry
  • Soil science
  • Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Politics
  • Agronomy
  • Geology
  • Common sense
  • Inspection

Perhaps the most important skills qualified designers and reviewers must possess are political savvy and common sense. Unfortunately, these skills usually do not evolve until an individual gains lots of experience in the development, review, and implementation of S&EC drawings.

Qualifying Sediment and Erosion Control Designers and Reviewers
The above discussions demonstrate that developing and reviewing S&EC plans is definitely not solely an engineering discipline. Nor is it confined to those working in forestry, hydrology, agronomy, geology, or any specific technical specialty. Few professionals are taught about construction site sediment and erosion control while earning a higher education degree, because S&EC plan development and review is a composite of many technical and diverse disciplines.

Designers and reviewers must be able to demonstrate accountability for their S&EC expertise. The best way to exhibit these skills is to obtain professional certification that they are qualified to develop, sign, and review S&EC plans based upon their experience, education, and an evaluation of their knowledge.

Experience is one of the more important qualifications designers and reviewers must obtain. Before they regularly develop, sign, or review S&EC plans, it is suggested that designers and reviewers have at least one year of prequalified experience with 10-acre (4-hectare) or larger construction sites involving at least the following:

  • assisting with developing and/or reviewing S&EC plans
  • installing, maintaining, and removing BMPs
  • conducting S&EC construction site inspections
  • writing inspection and corrective action reports
  • updating construction site S&EC drawings

Education is nearly as important as experience and is essential if one is to fully understand all aspects of sediment and erosion control. Few designers and reviewers learn about sediment and erosion control while earning a college degree, because such skills are usually acquired by post-college education.

It is suggested designers and reviewers obtain comprehensive education on at least the following topics:

  • requirements of rules and regulations (local and/or EPA)
  • principles and practices of sediment and erosion control and pollution prevention
  • assessing construction site conditions that impact stormwater quality
  • incorporating modeling into the development of sediment and erosion control plans
  • assessing the effectiveness and limitations of stormwater controls
  • designing sediment containment systems (e.g., silt fence barriers, sediment ponds)
  • understanding and incorporating erosion control practices
  • conducting inspections and writing reports
  • developing effective and practical S&EC drawings

Evaluation is essential to demonstrate accountability. Passing a comprehensive and closed-book certification examination by at least 75% will provide an assessment of a designer’s and reviewer’s expertise on a variety of sediment and erosion control matters. Suggested topics for testing include the following:

  • rules and regulations (no more than 20% of the questions)
  • principles of sediment and erosion control and modeling (about 20% of the questions)
  • assessing BMP design, effectiveness, and limitations (about 20% of the questions)
  • conducting inspections (about 15% of the questions)
  • developing effective and practical S&EC drawings (no more than 25% of the questions)

Finally, organizations that test and certify sediment and erosion control professionals’ expertise must provide a comprehensive and practical assessment of each applicant’s proficiency while maintaining high professional standards. Only in this manner will a meaningful certification program exist.

Sediment and erosion control is not solely an engineering discipline nor confined to any one profession. Instead, development of S&EC plans and their accompanying drawings requires the expertise of many different professional skills, along with incorporating the knowledge of contractors and inspectors.

The role of designers and reviewers is to ensure the development and review of S&EC plans includes a comprehensive narrative section as well as practical and effective drawings. Most importantly, development of the drawings must be done in a manner that permits contractors to implement sediment and erosion control measures in a cost-effective way that minimizes non-compliant conditions.

Designers and reviewers should obtain certification that they are accountable to design, sign, and review S&EC plans and the accompanying drawings. Such certifications must be based upon experience, education, and testing as administered by organizations having high professional standards.

Fifield, Jerald S. 2011. Designing and Reviewing Effective Sediment and Erosion Control Plans. Santa Barbara, CA: Forester Media.

Sheppard, Sherri, A. Colby, K. Macatangay, and W. Sullivan. 2006. “What is Engineering Practice?” International Journal of Engineering Education 22(3): 429-438.

USEPA 2007. Developing Your Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, A Guide for Construction Sites. Environmental Protection Agency. Washington DC, May 2007. 50 pages.

2012. National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, General Permit for Discharges from Construction Activities. Environmental Protection Agency. Washington DC, February 2012. 151 pages.
About the Author

Jerald S. Fifield

Jerald S. Fifield, Ph.D., CPESC, CISEC, is president of HydroDynamics Inc. in Parker, CO.