Making the Case for Sewer Stormwater Collaboration

When I started my career as a scientist, my natural inclination was to study the stormwater and the pollution I could easily see muddying up the rivers I paddled and enjoyed. As my career progressed, I developed watershed-based plans and erosion prediction models, engaged the public on non-point sources, and tried to understand how to restore aquatic systems to some semblance of what they once were. Over the last ten years at Woodard & Curran, I have worked with wastewater treatment and sewer system experts which has afforded me a different view of clean water protection. While I have largely been focused on aquatic health, these professionals are dedicated to a fundamental human health risk—raw sewage in our waters. As a self-proclaimed stormwater guy, I have come to realize that for us stormwater folk to be successful in protecting and restoring our waters, we will need to partner with and leverage the incredible depth of knowledge from these veterans of the clean water industry. 

 As one of my more thoughtful colleagues recently said, “storm and sewer are certainly sleeping in the same bed together.” These systems are buried in on and under each other throughout our cities and the lack of public recognition for stormwater collection systems is not a new story to professionals that are working every day on a hidden and critical clean water asset—our sanitary sewer collection system.  As we all continue to recognize the extreme challenges ahead of us and the very costly effort undertaken during reactive response to infrastructure failures, we must present a collaborative front and that starts with understanding what we do on both sides of the clean water house. 

The rise of the NPDES stormwater permitting program, particularly the Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination requirements, are perhaps forcing the hand on Sewer-Stormwater Collaboration.  Our municipal drainage can be an excellent entry point to rapidly identify leaks, breaks, and other defects in sanitary sewer systems. The problem is that many stormwater and sewer programs do not communicate on a regular basis and may have different objectives and drivers for rehabilitation of the collection system. Therefore, an integrated strategy that addresses the fundamental needs of sewer collection and drainage system discharge compliance is never addressed and rarely realized. To help shed some light on How our Friends in Sewer will Save our Stormwater , I teamed up with Tim Haskell from the York Sewer District to deliver a presentation at the Maine Stormwater Conference to help stormwater professionals remember the fundamentals of sewer collection system maintenance, understand why this matters to us in stormwater, and  identify ways stormwater professionals can build a more fruitful relationship with their sewer profession counterparts.

Tim, who also serves as the Chair of Government Affairs for the Maine Water Environment Association, shares my support for integrated approaches.

” Zach has an insightful approach to MS4 likening it to a “marriage” with sewer systems. I hadn’t thought of it in this context before, but it is a very appropriate analogy. We share a commonality and like any marriage, we need to recognize our similarities and cooperate with each other and compromise. Once the sewer and stormwater community embrace this idea, we may then be able to work closer together to accomplish the common goal of clean water. ”

-Tim Haskell, York Sewer District

At the end of our presentation Tim offered some sage tips to the stormwater crowd on how to best collaborate with their local sewer program. 

Tim Haskell’s 5 P’s for Sewer and Stormwater Collaboration 

Patience: Integrating stormwater programs like Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination (IDDE) with Sanitary Sewer Evaluation Surveys (SSES) are a natural fit to improve the efficiency, maximize compliance and cut down on costs for both stormwater and sewer programs. However, it is important to remember that sewer investigation program priorities differ from the IDDE investigation program and that these differences are necessary and should not be compromised. While the two programs may not see eye to eye overnight, it is important to be patient, and work to increase program understanding on both sides, and then to identify opportunities and appropriate timing for integration. 

Politics: Understand that illicit discharge findings may make the sewer program look bad…. “What! Our sewers are broken?!” Try to start early, work collaboratively and transparently with your sewer program so that they can use your findings to improve their service, instead of letting them hear about “failures” retroactively.  This will help both sides justify the critical and increasing revenue needs for effective sewer and drain.

Programs: Stormwater programs like IDDE can help justify sewer expansion or improvement needs by identifying inadequate service issues that your sewer program may already know about. This helps us justify expansion of our own programs but must be done after the first two P’s are accomplished.    

Publicity: One of the best reasons for sewer and stormwater programs to work together is our common goal of clean water, ecological vitality and public safety. Integrating our outreach efforts to a “One Water, Clean Water” approach provides our customers with a clearer and more comprehensive message about spending money wisely on critical clean water needs which will increase public buy-in. 

Pressure: The legal authority that goes along with an IDDE ordinance may provide the enforcement that sewer programs need to address consistent and extensive private sewer lateral issues. This type of support can be critically important to any sewer program, so if you are having a hard time getting our attention, this can be a great carrot to offer sewer program professionals which they may not know about. 

We are facing a very challenging future with changing climate and aging infrastructure. More than ever we will need to collaborate to continue to make progress on our country’s clean water. Sewer and stormwater professionals must represent “one team” to the public to reduce confusion in a complicated society.  Like any relationship, this will take time, empathy, and some concessions from both sides.  



Zach Henderson Sr. Technical Leader Stormwater

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