Stormwater. Just the word “stormwater” can give construction project managers on transportation projects an ulcer and a bad attitude. The risk of non-compliances to federal, state and local environmental regulations or DOT agency directives and policies is real risk to the project manager whose main goal is finishing the construction project on time and within budget. Many times the project-level stormwater compliance management is seen by some DOT management as unnecessary and the construction and maintenance of best management practices (BMPs) as too costly. Some management do not understand the environmental regulations and say that stormwater programs such as the EPA-based Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) regulations do not apply to linear projects like transportation.
The reality of the situation is that sediment and nutrient loading into surface water systems from non-point sources is the major reason for water body impairment in the United States; i.e. the reason why a trout fishery is declining, algae is affecting a favorite beach or swimming area or why it costs more to treat water for domestic consumption, to name a few examples. Transportation activities such as construction and operation and maintenance do cause a threat to our waters of the US by exposing soil to erosion and sedimentation, discharging chemicals/nutrients into storm sewers or water bodies without BMPs or releasing petroleum-based chemicals from maintenance operations.
There are some problems with trying to retrofit a MS4 stormwater regulatory program geared for municipalities to DOTs; such as requiring a stormwater permit and BMPs on small projects with no stormwater runoff into sewers or water bodies or on projects where the area of disturbance is long and narrow and exceeds one acre thus triggering the need for a stormwater permit and possibly a post construction BMP. The need for a monitoring and evaluation program can be argued by a DOT as a waste of money by the permit holder due to the extreme cost and variability in the water quality-monitoring data whose results will rarely lead to a real change in BMP design, construction, placement or overall MS4 program changes. However, the vision and the intent of these MS4 regulations, policies and guidance is sound and make sense to protect our valuable water resources at a local, regional and national level.
DOTs need to work with regulatory agencies in an effort to allow flexibility in the implementation of MS4 program requirements. For example, there are situations where there is not enough right of way to place a permanent post-construction BMP such as a retention/detention pond; in fact there are many situations where having a BMPs for every culvert is impractical and too costly. DOT stormwater managers need to have flexibility in developing stormwater strategies that: 1) use larger “regional” BMPs that collect stormwater from multiple sources, 2) allow for the over design/over sizing of BMPs for increased stormwater treatment retention time or collecting and treating stormwater from another source that would otherwise be directly discharged into a surface water, using a credit scheme or 3) use a watershed based approach where surface water quality can be improved to an equal or greater level than conventional stormwater BMPs.
DOT stormwater programs need to emphasize actual water quality protection during and after construction activities with less emphasis on large amounts of paper work and documentation filing. The development and maintenance of some DOT stormwater management plans take away from actual time that the erosion control specialist can be in the field solving problems and maintaining BMPs. Regulatory agencies need to realize this situation. Some DOTs are more interested in making their computer tablets work in the field than observing site conditions.
Finally, regulatory agencies need to ensure that transportation and other types of construction activities are in compliance by conducting on site audits and concentrating on project areas that represent a real risk to water quality. State regulatory agencies and DOTs who are serious about protecting water quality need to provide adequate financial and technical resources to site inspections on a state wide basis. It is hard to understand just how state stormwater-regulatory managers can evaluate the success of a regulatory program to adequately protect water quality when there are just a small handful of state inspectors to inspect hundreds of outstanding stormwater permits (as the case here in Colorado). During site inspections, regulatory agencies should attempt to help problem DOT construction sites by providing technical support and advice with a cooperative attitude but also be willing to promptly file notice of violations for problem permittees with poor track records or obvious non compliances that threaten local water resources.