BMP Coops & Watershed Groups: A Solution to the Stormwater Maintenance Dilemma?

Well maintained stormwater ponds can be valuable assets to homeowner association members. Photo courtesy of Foster Lake & Pond Management  www.FosterLake.com

Well maintained stormwater ponds can be valuable assets to homeowner association members. Photo courtesy of Foster Lake & Pond Management http://www.FosterLake.com

THE PROBLEM:  There may be 100,000 stormwater ponds and other Best Management Practices (BMPs) throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  While no one knows for certain, lack of maintenance may have caused a substantial portion to fail.  If this is true then large quantities of pollution are needlessly entering the Bay and her tributary waters.  Most BMPs are privately owned and maintained.  In some jurisdictions a staff of inspectors visit each BMP every three years or so.  These visits help the owner understand the importance of the BMP and maintenance needs.  The owner is then provided with a list of contractors who have the expertise and equipment needed to resolve any maintenance issues.   Most issues are resolved quickly without the need for enforcement action.

In those localities lacking such an inspection program most BMP owners:

  1. May not know a BMP exists on their property;
  2. Have no idea of the important service the BMP provides;
  3. Nor how to identify maintenance needs; and
  4. Would have difficulty finding a contractor that has the expertise and equipment needed to fix the BMP properly.

THE SOLUTION:  Like all problems, this one is a great opportunity.  The folks who may have the greatest motivation to pursue this opportunity are the 200- to 300-watershed groups active throughout the Chesapeake drainage basin.

If you are a member of one of these groups, then here’s what I have in mind.

  • We start off with a few highly-motivated groups;
  • We train their most dedicated volunteers or staff in the extremely simple methods for locating BMPs, evaluating each for obvious maintenance needs, and approaching BMP owners with an offer of support;
  • The volunteer explains to the owner why their BMP is important, points out any apparent maintenance needs, provides the owner with inspection agency contact information so they can verify the need is legitimate and to ensure all maintenance issues are identified, then offers the owner a list of contractors who do BMP maintenance; and
  • Once the group has established a relationship with 20 or so BMP owners they offer the possibility of forming a coop where the group approaches contractors about bidding on a maintenance agreement with all the owners in exchange for a 10% to 25% reduction in the cost of routine maintenance practices.

I know, I know.  You’re thinking of all the problems this “solution” entails, such as…

How do we train the volunteers?  Well we already have a 30-minute narrated YouTube training presentation and guidance document, both of which can be easily modified to fit whatever unique conditions may exist in a local area.

Will volunteers need to trespass onto private property to assess BMPs?  The vast majority of BMPs are located next to parking lots, roads or other public areas and can be assessed without trespassing.

Won’t BMP owners simply ignore the volunteers?  Some will, though most won’t.  Take a homeowners association that’s strapped for funds to carry out other maintenance needs.  But what if the half-dozen association members who live next to a failing BMP lobby the association board to take the issue seriously.  After all, the association members living near a BMP have a strong motivation to see that the BMP is well maintained given the benefits it provides and the nuisances suffered when maintenance is lacking.   Perhaps an office building manager turns a deaf ear at first, but then listens attentively when a major tenant, who has a home on your creek, makes a call.  The point is that there’s a way to win better BMP maintenance from even the most difficult owner.

If inspectors are already spread thin, won’t this make matters worse?  In the long run, No.  It will establish a constituency that will support the inspection agency in getting the resources needed to do their job.  Well established inspection programs find significant problems with perhaps 15% of the BMPs evaluated.  The volunteers could allow far more efficient use of inspection services by identifying the problem BMPs.  So instead of an inspector spending 85% of their time looking at BMPs which are OK, they can focus on those most in need of attention.  But the reality is that given how the number of BMPs is growing in the Bay watershed, we may never have enough paid inspectors to keep watch over all.  It may only be through volunteers that the task becomes manageable.

Won’t this take up all of a Watershed Group’s resources?  The Chesapeake watershed is made up of a thousand subwatersheds each draining about 70 square miles.  Most groups are active at this subwatershed level.  It would take one day for a single pair of trained volunteers to evaluate all the stormwater BMPs in a rural watershed.  Up to a week might be required to evaluate all BMPs in an intensely developed urban subwatershed.  It would take another day for the team to draft a letter to each of the owners of problem BMPs and the rest of a week to meet with the owners.  Most of the BMP owners will come away with a very positive impression of your group and the volunteers.  This could translate into greater support come your next fund-raising drive or call for folks to attend a hearing.  Of course you would also see one of the quickest and most dramatic reductions in pollutant loads possible as existing BMPs are restored to their original condition.

How will volunteers know which contractors have the expertise and equipment?  Here we would rely upon local or statewide inspection agencies to develop a list of reliable contractors like that prepared by Montgomery County, MD.

Isn’t organizing a Coop beyond the capabilities of most groups?  Setting up a Coop, drafting contracts and negotiating prices is well beyond the ability of most watershed groups.  This is why a portion of the maintenance cost savings should be paid to the watershed group to cover their legal expenses and other costs, including part of the salary for a Watershed Group staff person to oversee the effort.  Most of the watershed groups active in the Chesapeake watershed are fiercely competing with one another for scarce grant funds provided by a small number of foundations.  And for reasons I’ve never understood the foundations seem loathe to support activities that improve compliance with existing laws.  Instead they encourage the pursuit of new laws or policies which will become yet another poorly funded and failing initiative.  The Coop could provide an independent source of funds and expand the amount of support from those who live, work and play in your watershed.

Are we talking about reinventing the wheel?  Surely this has been tried elsewhere?  If it has been tried few know about it.  I say this because I sent a message to nearly a thousand folks nationwide asking if they knew of such a coop approach or something similar.  These folks included:

  • All of the USEPA officials that focus on stormwater issues in all 10 EPA Regions;
  • The officials in charge of stormwater programs in all 50 states;
  • The several hundred watershed groups active in the Chesapeake Bay watershed;
  • The 101 stormwater BMP contractors on the list compiled by Montgomery County, MD;
  • A number of property management associations and companies;
  • University faulty active in stormwater management research; and
  • many others.

While some of the folks who responded thought the idea would be very difficult to implement, most saw it as playing a potentially important role in solving the coming stormwater BMP maintenance crisis.

Looking for a few energetic and entrepreneurial watershed advocates.  I have no interest in making money off this idea.  My day job pays well and I enjoy it immensely.  But I would be willing to volunteer a substantial amount time to help some energetic and highly-motivated watershed advocates test the potential of this idea.  If you’d like to give this idea a try in your watershed then give me (Richard Klein) a call (410-654-3021) or send me an e-mail (Rklein@ceds.org) and we can discuss next steps, which will probably include spending a half-day looking at BMPs in your watershed.

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About Richard Klein

President of Community & Environmental Defense Services (ceds.org)
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