Watershed Terminology: Good Grammar Promotes Better Practices

July 1, 2010

Have you noticed? Few have. Even fewer have spoken out. Have no fear; the record will be set straight. This grammatical discussion is undertaken with the hope of bringing more precision, clarity, and consistency to our profession–in how we speak with each other; publish papers and articles; speak at profession gatherings; and enact policies, regulations, and ordinances.

What is the difference between bacteria and bacterial? You correctly will respond, “An l,“ at first glance. So true. But look again; think grammatically. Can the two words, in fact, be used interchangeably? You may incorrectly respond “Yes.” However, in our trade, these words are used interchangeably despite the grammatical rule that bacteria and bacterium are nouns and bacterial is an adjective. They cannot be used interchangeably, nor should they be used incorrectly without consequence. Regrettably, they are. You see it all the time, but do not pay attention and notice. How about the Bacteria Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for Santa Monica Bay Beaches–a legal, executed, in-force document? The word bacteria is used to describe the noun TMDL, and so acts as an adjective; yet, the word is in the noun form. The adjective form is required: bacterial.

Unfortunately, in our profession, this word, bacteria, as well as others, are usually used in the wrong form, both written and verbally. Almost always, the noun version is used when the adjective form should be used. In any profession, good grammar speaks volumes on how careful people are about accuracy. If one’s grammar is incorrect, could one’s formulas, programs, policies, and/or regulations also be? If we make a mistake in a formula, calculations for runoff mitigation volume or treatment efficiency will be wrong, potentially undermining our goals and objectives, and leading to improper implementation of the very regulations we intend to improve water quality and protect beneficial uses. How will our colleagues and other related professions give credence to what we say if we are inconsistent and wrong in our language? Consistency is critical; our standards of any type–mathematical equations, numerical standards, and policies–must be of the very highest caliber. Reputations are on the line. Can a business stay in business if it produces products with defects?

Grammatical errors can be corrected by stating the correct word the next time, or in the next article. But when a grammatical error becomes “written in stone,” e.g., codified in a law, the correction requires a long, formal process that involves a governing body reaching consensus. The above example is a case in point. When the Bacteria TMDL for Santa Monica Bay Beaches was issued in 2002, the wrong form of the word bacteria was codified. This grammatical error has been immortalized. And when something is immortalized in a law, it lends itself to propagating the error, like a cancer or domino effect, spreading under its own momentum. Do we have the will to correct such an error, stemming the cancerous tide? Will we set the record straight? For the sake of the watershed management profession, let us hope our professional leaders will step forward and call for such corrections.

A second case in point is not so much a grammatical error as a technical error in our perception on how two words are put to use. The error is no less critical, though it is a relatively new phenomenon making its way across the land, drowning our minds of common sense. The problem is our application of the words use and reuse when employed with wet- and dry-weather runoff, rain water, and storm water. Use in the context of water management is applied to a situation that involves a first-time use of the resource: “I’m using [potable] water to irrigate my landscape, flush the toilet, or take a shower.” (Here’s a twist. It is also appropriate to say, “I am using reclaimed water to water my golf course.” Or maybe, “I am reusing waste water as recycled water for the golf course.” But not, “I am reusing recycled water.”) The water has not been used in another context before this application, at least in a human timescale. (Obviously, all water is REused over geologic time, being exploited over and over again through the hydrologic cycle. We have the same amount of water today as existed however many billions of years ago. The familiar line, we are using the same water used by dinosaurs, is accurate. An interesting thought to ponder is that for some of our waterways in which we extract water for domestic uses, much of the water is from upstream waste water treatment plants and other untreated runoff. Therefore, this water use is really a REuse; one is reusing the waste water of others. [Notice the uses of “˜wastewater’ and “˜waste water’! More to come on this.])

Use involves harvesting water from the atmosphere, even if it is taken indirectly from the ocean, a waterway, or an aquifer. It is a new resource ready for first-time human consumption. Whether we harvest rain or storm water, or wet-weather runoff from a roof, parking lot, or storm drain system, it is a first use. When captured and treated, this water resource is ready for non-potable and potable applications or USES. It is not a REUSE, though most in our profession speak of reuse when talking about rain- or storm water capture and applications: “Let’s reuse this rain water to water the garden.” We are not reusing it; its use is a first-time use. You cannot reuse something that is being used for the first time, and vice versa. (Note: I admit that it certainly sounds better to say “runoff reuse” or “rain water reuse” than applying “use.”)

What about runoff from non-wet weather? Is there such a thing, you ask? Cannot be. When it is not raining or snowing, no runoff flows through our municipal separate storm water sewer system (MS4), you assume! Visit southern California. As we know, unfortunately, our society wastes a huge amount of water, intentionally and unintentionally, through inherently inefficient technology and applications, and behaviors from two generations of a perception of water plenty and “cheap” water resources. As we are realizing once again, certainly in California and throughout the western United States, and as the saying goes, the hens are coming home to roost; we are now accepting the true costs and consequences of a profligate water management system. Dry-weather runoff does exist–an overspray and leaks from irrigation systems, water from hosing down hardscapes, and washing down vehicles and equipment. If we cannot stem the tide of waste, this water, runoff, is a natural resource that can be harvested from the MS4 and REused, a second time; it is not a first-time use. It can be employed for non-potable and potable applications depending upon treatment. This is true REUSE, not USE. For example, the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility takes dry-weather runoff, treats it, and REuses it for non-potable purposes. Use the word use for first-time uses of water. Use reuse for second-time uses of water.

Watershed professional and colleague Eric Strecker, P.E., of Geosyntec Consultants, noted in The Water Report, July 2009, a similar clarification about the difference between use and reuse, and their proper applications. We are in the minority.

Finally, from the watershed management professionals, your thoughts and consensus on the proper use of rain water/rainwater and storm water/stormwater are urgently needed. Two timely examples come from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been soliciting comments from our profession on new stormwater management regulations for discharges for new development, redevelopment, and existing development. In an EPA Fact Sheet, EPA 833-F-09-004, the following terms are (mis)used: stormwater reuse (incorrect, since not reuse), storm water, and stormwater. In EPA 841-B-09-001, Technical Guidance on Implementing the Stormwater Runoff Requirements for Federal Projects under Section 438 of the Energy Independence and Security Act, the same terms are misused. In the actual act, it is written, “Storm water runoff requirements,” and then in support documents it is written, “… stormwater runoff to the …” Use and reuse are used interchangeably, and then later spelled re-use. Here are official federal documents incorrectly using words or mixing up the same word for different grammatical uses. Surely, we need to formalize rules and guidelines for the application of our professional-specific terms to ensure consistency and uniformity in writing and speech. For that matter, what about this journal, Stormwater; should it actually be titled Storm Water?

While the world of watershed management will not fall into chaos over these Einsteinian philosophical questions, noun versus adjective, first versus second use, and one word versus two words, it is worthy of a serious discussion and resolution to set us on a path of the highest of standards of locution. May the grammatical force be with us! 

Disclaimer: This article does not represent the policies of the City of Santa  Monica.

About the Author

Neal Shapiro

Neal Shapiro is the watershed management program coordinator and supervisor of the Watershed/Water Resources Section of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, City of Santa Monica, CA.