Weather Proof: Collaborative stormwater solutions through optimization, communication and integration - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Weather Proof: Collaborative stormwater solutions through optimization, communication and integration

MPC's April 8 roundtable focused on the benefits of collaborating to solve stormwater problems

This past weekend was a rainy one, followed by a rather jarringly snowy Monday, followed by a damp Tuesday melt. It was April 15, and pardon the pun, but the whole thing was pretty taxing for two groups of people—the system of actors involved in managing stormwater, and the system of actors simply ready for spring to get here already.

In fact, those two systems of actors are largely the same system, and not just because stormwater engineers like sunshine and daffodils just as much as anyone else. Rather, they're the same system because it rains and snows on all of us, and from private property owners to open space managers, water quality regulators to stormwater engineers, and then all the rest of us that pay taxes into the system, we all have some role in stormwater management. Solving stormwater problems requires pinpointing specific locations or areas within that system for tailored, targeted investments in gray and green infrastructure. That's no silver bullet (there are none), but it's a prudent place to start. Some folks call that optimization, and frankly, we could use more of it.

Often those optimal locations or areas are not in public ownership—most of the surfaces, drainage areas and small infrastructure components (i.e. downspouts to a lateral line) are in private ownership. So while the greatest and most optimal public benefit for the stormwater system may come from a suite of gray and green infrastructure, the investments need to be made, at least in part, by private actors. Communication then becomes the key, and frankly and generally speaking, that hasn't proven to be a strength of most actors in the stormwater world. We could use more of that, too.

Finally, stormwater management is intimately related (or should be, at any rate) to real estate development, community enhancement, open space management and capital improvement planning, and each of us affects and is affected by those public concerns as well. It's hard, perhaps impossible, to truly manage stormwater without integrating of all of those concerns. And yes, we could use more of that.

Optimization, communication and integration. As I see it, these are also necessary elements (not exclusively, there are others) of building collaborative, systemic solutions in complex, multi-actor stormwater systems. And in the coming weeks and months, we'll put that to the test. As one priority project of the revamped Millennium Reserve initiative, MPC is facilitating the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative "to foster awareness of the many ongoing stormwater management initiatives in the Calumet region, forge a shared understanding of terms, establish common goals and identify opportunities to align existing projects (or develop new ones) toward those goals." The first meeting was last Tuesday, April 8, largely for the purpose of introductions and context setting. We get down to brass tacks in May. You'll be able to follow that work here on our site, but more so on the new Millennium Reserve website once it is launched.

Q&A at MPC's April 8 roundtable

Not coincidentally, later that day we had a packed house for a lunchtime roundtable, Weather Proof: Collaborative Stormwater Solutions, sponsored by CH2M HILL. You can watch the whole thing (and many people already have), on our YouTube channel. Our speakers, Laurens van der Tak from CH2M HILL, Susan Harper from Seattle Public Utilities, and Bob Newport from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region V and a member of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, explored optimization, communication and integration in turn. (You can download the speakers' slides here.)

One aspect of CH2M HILL's work is building watershed and sewershed models that can be used for hydrologic and hydraulic analysis, which can in turn inform optimization of capital investments based in part on how the stormwater system is understood to operate in different storm scenarios. These are powerful tools for making prudent choices within constrained budgets, assuming that the goals of the actors within the system are clear. If you have a dollar to spend, and your prioritization of goals is to address basement backups before combined sewer overflows, then optimization tools will inform the most prudent use of that dollar. Additionally, if the actors in your system have stressed that stormwater investments should ideally provide benefits above and beyond stormwater management itself, then a tailored optimization process can help make those choices. That might lead a system toward use of green infrastructure in many instances. Laurens examined several examples— the Washington, D.C. metro area, New York's Onondaga County, Lancaster, Pa.—in which optimization tools played a role in galvanizing collaborative action toward commonly understood goals. Getting the tools right to make shared decisions is necessary, but not sufficient, for systemic change.

Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) also used CH2M HILL processes to inform its long-term plan for managing stormwater, and identified priority areas for investment ... many of which are residential neighborhoods. So the challenge was developing programs to communicate with those property owners, educate them about their role in managing stormwater and create mechanisms to actually get infrastructure for public benefit built and managed on private land. As Susan Harper described it, that required consistent messaging and outreach amongst many, many mission-driven organizations, as well as the development of financial incentives targeted to specific neighborhoods and for specific aspects of green infrastructure that would address specific problems in that specific part of the sewershed. As my colleague Abby Crisostomo notes here, the tailoring of incentive programs is something MPC is actively exploring, with an eye toward developing best practices guidance.

I'd encourage everyone to check out the RainWise web site, which is one of ways SPU informs residents about their options. Many properties are eligible for incentives, but many are not, largely because they are not in priority areas. When you have a limited budget, setting priorities is important, but in this case, so is communication with the folks who are in and the folks that are out. RainWise does that. The web application to determine if your property is eligible is pretty slick too— I found multiple properties that had used SPU's incentives and were managing well over 20,000 gallons in any given storm event. Start making multiple investments of that size in a targeted area and the impacts start to mount.

But maybe stormwater investment isn't enough if we truly have comprehensive goals for livable, thriving communities. One of the examples Bob Newport explored was the Lick Run watershed in Cincinnati. There, stormwater management improvements were integrated into residential and retail redevelopment, creation of parks and other open spaces, and street reconstruction. All told it was less expensive than building something like a tunnel, provided a wider range of community benefits and was much more complicated. Land acquisition, historic preservation, brownfield remediation and community engagement simply aren't always part of building tunnels, and require different partners, skill sets and tactics. Collaboration is necessary.

Optimization, communication and integration, all lessons from Weather Proof and incredibly timely as the member of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative embark upon a big task. Track the work here and keep an eye out for announcements about the revamped Millennium Reserve and some of the commitments the State of Illinois and other public and private entities will be making to move the ball forward on these and other issues of economy, community and environment in Chicago's south side and the southern suburbs of Cook County. It's an exciting time, the Collaborative could lead to exciting systemic improvements for stormwater management, and all that makes a little weekend rain and snow (really?) a little easier to bear.

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