Alternative Routes Lead to Unexpected Benefits

When I set out to describe my work as a stormwater program manager, my first thoughts included the struggles I’ve faced in implementing my programs: the ongoing battles with construction-site subcontractors, the political battles (sometimes I think we should add a total maximum daily load for politics reduction), and the difficulty in working equally with diametrically opposed groups. But I also wanted to emphasize the positive side of my job. My thoughts went immediately to the volunteer water-quality monitoring program I’m fostering and the day I discovered tadpoles.

I was training a new intern on his first day. He accompanied my veteran monitor and me along the rough cow path that marked the way to our regular monitoring site only to find the rancher had restricted the path access with a new, impassible string of barbed wire and metal pole. Trying to keep up morale, I sought an alternative route. To reach our destination, the other bank required repelling equipment or a bungee cord and more courage than I had, so that was not an option. I contemplated walking through the extremely dark and long tunnel that directs the upstream creek to the confluence at the site, but rejected that idea given my fear of confined spaces and rattlesnakes. We started to walk along the trademark chainlink fence that separates the human world from the riparian world, hoping to find a passage through holes cut or bent by taggers and preteens looking to explore the forbidden. There we found bounty: an unlocked gate with a concrete flood control road that provided access to the creek!

We started down the alternative path into a concrete-lined channel, complete with low flow from yards and parking lots, as well as algae. My mood soured as we approached the small pond of water and I saw floating black globules. “Illegal dumping of oil!” my mind screamed. As we got closer, however, I saw the oil globules moving–and they had tails! This was not illegal dumping, but something I hadn’t seen once since I started my work with California stormwater: tadpoles, hundreds of tadpoles! In this concrete-lined channel, the least likely place I think anyone would look for them, these little bits of life were thriving. I contacted the local park service staff who, in a remarkable example of good timing, were planning to assess tadpoles and amphibians in our particular creek the following week.

The biologists came out and identified them. As it turns out, the tadpoles weren’t frog tadpoles, but were in the process of becoming Western toads. A species native to the area that had taken residence in the creek I am working so very hard to protect. The tadpoles had plenty of food provided by the algae and would hop, eventually into nearby hills. Perhaps some of them will return and lay their eggs there someday. Wildlife has made this channel their habitat this year. I had a small something to do with that.

Whether you are a stormwater professional by choice or by default, knowing at the end of the day you improved water quality in your corner of the world has its own rewards. Continuing our traditional way of implementing stormwater programs is no longer a viable option without risking significant consequences.

In the case of finding those tadpoles, if I had followed the traditional command and control policies, I would have gotten into an argument with that rancher to provide access or remove the fence. Maybe I could have sued him for access and made an enemy, and he would plot some retribution. Traditional engineering might say and record an access easement and build a new road through that cow path. If I had followed those traditional choices, I would have destroyed the tadpoles, their habitat, and potentially the beneficial use.

While creatively finding an alternative route, I found evidence that this creek is restoring itself and that my efforts have done something. For stormwater program success and survival, we professionals have to look for alternative routes to restore the beneficial uses of our waterways that policymakers can accept and existing budgets can handle. In this journey, new and unexpected solutions and benefits will present themselves, sometimes subtly.

The final analysis of what these regulations will do for the public is, to many, muddled in the unknown and the uncertain. Stormwater-quality improvement is not in a standard engineering equation that most of the professionals working on this issue have a comfort level with. It requires flexibility and metamorphoses of ideas that we are all capable of. If we care, if we give our best efforts to finding local solutions, if there is mutual respect between all participants in this process, if we educate and–if necessary–enforce, we provide the possibility of change, each of those ideas morphing from progeny into hope. Like the saying goes, “Success is a journey, not a destination.”

About the Author

Heather Lea Merenda

Heather Lea Merenda is the stormwater program manager for the City of Calabasas, CA.