Managing water resource investments for the next generation

Altering the direction of thinking between the public works official and the environmental regulator

Joseph Superneau, P.E., Executive Director, Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, Springfield, Massachusetts, and member, APWA Water Resources Management Committee; George Crombie, MPA, Secretary of Natural Resources, Waterbury, Vermont, and Board Liaison, APWA Water Resources Management Committee

It has now been thirty-four years since the passage of the Clean Water Act. For over three decades public works officials, environmentalists, citizens, elected officials, consultants, and environmental regulators have all played major roles in cleaning up the waters of our country. The prevailing remedy to decrease pollution was constructing pollution abatement facilities at the end of the pipe.

In the coming decades, the solutions to improving water pollution will entail a far broader view of water pollution sources within a community and determining the most effective cleanup methods to improve water quality. It will not be possible to always collect water pollution and discharge at one location, but will require a matrix of alternatives and solutions to ensure that there is an effective and efficient means to improve water quality. As never before, it is necessary for public works officials and environmental regulators to work together, cooperate, and make good decisions.

Paramount to this decision-making process will be assembling all of the parties to set a course that builds projects that provide measured environmental yield and are a sound investment of taxpayers' money. Science and engineering will be critical in developing effective water quality projects, but the more important factor will be the management of these projects by public works officials and environmental regulators. Bringing the players together and buying into a sound decision is critical.

Let's take a look at the motives of the players as noted above and the roles that they play in developing a water quality project.

  • Citizens - Most citizens want to protect the environment, and will be influenced by the debate. The closer a project is to the location of a citizen's residence, the more involved these residents will be with the solution.

  • Elected Officials - The pulse of the community will be important to an elected official, and where they weigh in on a project. Elected officials do not want to be seen as anti-environment or responsible for large rate increases, and will judge and side with public sentiment to a great degree.

  • Consultants - The consultants' key role is to develop water quality alternatives based on sound science and engineering.

  • Environmentalists - The goal of environmental organizations is to set the bar high, and expect the environment to be protected to the fullest.

  • Environmental Regulators - The responsibility of the regulator is to ensure that environmental laws and regulations are being met, and that the project when completed will improve water quality.

  • Public Works Officials - Hold the responsibility of ensuring a project is developed, is designed correctly, can be implemented, meets the water quality goals intended, maintains costs within reasonable values, and operates properly; have the support of interest groups.
Of the players listed above there are two who play paramount roles in the development of a successful water quality project: the environmental regulator and the public works official. There are two issues that separate them from the pack: The environmental regulator is responsible for enforcing the laws and regulations as they pertain to the environment; and the public works official does not have an endless supply of money, and has to make continuous choices of where to best invest the department's resources (within the fiscal constraints approved for the department) while at the same time meeting environmental rules and regulations. The other players in the mix will many times make choices on a project based on the behavior of the environmental regulator and public works official.

Over the years both environmental regulators and public works officials could write reams about differences, but if our water quality is going to be improved in the future it will be paramount that both parties team up to solve environmental issues. Below are ten helpful hints to create this synergy. Included are examples in Springfield, Massachusetts where successes and failures have contributed to developing successful projects.

1. Respect - It is imperative that both the environmental regulator and the public works official respect each other from the start, and truly understand each other's professional obligations. They are both trained to protect the environment.

2. Teamwork - The two parties need to work as a team to solve a water quality issue. Professionals can have differing views on how to reach the correct answer, but they need to put their egos aside to find balanced solutions and still meet their respective professional obligations.

3. Innovation - Environmental regulators are very concerned that the solution they approve will work, and that is understandable. The public works official is more willing to try innovative technology because it may save money and still do the job. Below is an example of this scenario.

Case Study: Overview of the Influent Structure Soil Biofilter. As part of the Odor Control Program in the late 1980s, fiberglass covers were installed on the influent structure to minimize the release of sulfur-based odors into the local community. They worked very well but fugitive emissions were still a problem and it became necessary to try and treat the contained odors. A pilot soil filter was constructed to evaluate its ability to remove hydrogen sulfide odors from the contained gases. The data verified 99% removal and the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility (SRWTF) approached the environmental agency to construct an inexpensive, permanent facility which could be in operation quickly.

At that time soil filtration, along with other biofiltration technologies, were considered innovative technologies for odor removal as compared to today when they are a recommended technology used worldwide. Part of the problem was that the wastewater treatment industry was used to highly engineered, technical and expensive solutions even though small-scale biofiltration alternatives were simple to construct, easy to operate and maintain, cost effective, and made logical sense. Unfortunately, although one could verify that they work, biofiltration alternatives were not initially supported by the engineering industry or the regulatory community.

Consequently, because the technology was innovative and did not meet the traditional regulatory Best Available Control Technology requirements, and because of an extremely conservative regulatory approval approach involving requirements such as dimensional modeling of numerous, unrealistic "what ifs," the project was ultimately abandoned by the SRWTF due to the time and cost required to obtain the regulatory permits. The end result was the construction of a Regenerative Thermo Oxidizer (RTO) at a cost of $3.2 million and annual fuel costs of $300,000 to burn the gasses.

Comment: In this case the environmental regulator was concerned that the technology would not work, and was probably concerned that they would be blamed if the technology did not work. The environmental regulator is trained to be conservative and that is a good trait. On the other hand, the public works official does not want to spend any more money than is required because he can then use the dollars saved to make other environmental investments. The win-win scenario in this case should have played out as follows. The public works official and environmental regulator should agree that if the technology was successful in reducing the odors to an acceptable level, then no further mitigation would be necessary. If the technology did not adequately address the problem, then further mitigation would be required. To consummate the agreement a contract would be drawn up by the parties, and money placed in an escrow agreement to ensure further improvement would be completed in a timely manner and there would be funding to finish the work.

4. Understanding - It is important that public works officials and environmental regulators understand one another and their respective track records. It is always easy in any organization to find something that is wrong, and the bigger the organization there is more probability of this happening because the problems are more complex. The environmental regulator needs to look at all of the work an agency is dealing with when determining orders and timelines. It is important for the public works official to clearly articulate, on a regular basis, all of the environmental improvement programs that they are working on. The more parties share information the greater the trust will be, and it becomes easier to work together when confronted with a complex issue. Below is a case study of an environmental education program developed by Springfield, Massachusetts that would not show up on any environmental permit, but is reaping tremendous dividends by teaching environmental stewardship to the next generation.

Case Study: Bondi's Island Curriculum. In Springfield, Mass., the Water and Sewer Commission, working closely with United Water, LLC, and the Springfield Public Schools, is achieving remarkable environmental yield from a low-cost initiative called the Bondi's Island Curriculum. The Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility (SRWTF) operated by United Water at Bondi's Island has become an important educational resource and classroom for the Greater Springfield area.

  Fifth-graders at Bondi Island Wastewater Treatment Plant classroom

Shortly after United Water took over wastewater treatment operations at the SRWTF in October 2000, it joined forces with the Springfield Schools, Springfield College, and the Water and Sewer Commission to launch an educational venture focused on science and engineering. With the other collaborators, the team helped to shape a water-based program for fifth-graders—the Bondi's Island Curriculum.

Since that program was piloted in 2002, more than 10,000 students have taken part. This year, all Springfield and Agawam fifth-graders are visiting the Bondi's Wastewater Treatment Plant for daylong workshops. They explore physical, earth and life sciences and complete a design challenge to clean mock wastewater.

  Fifth-graders tour wastewater treatment plant

The program is teaching children about the how and why of environmental stewardship and encouraging careers in industries such as water and wastewater management and in public works. Also, because children bring home the lessons they learn, their parents are gaining respect for our precious natural resources. As expected, the program is meeting goals set by the state's Curriculum Frameworks with the goal of improving scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests.

Through our investment in the Bondi's Curriculum—in terms of oversight, expertise and a small financial outlay—the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission and United Water are having a positive, powerful and long-term impact on the future of the environment.

5. Continuity - The case study of the Watershops Pond Restoration Project outlined below is a good example of how it is imperative to keep a good chemistry and continuity between both the environmental regulatory team and the public works organization throughout a project. Changing teams in mid-stream can have a significant impact on the outcome.

Case Study: Watershops Pond Restoration Project Program. The Watershops Pond Restoration Project Program is the result of a negotiated settlement with the USEPA and MADEP as part of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission's Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program. The Commission agreed to an Administrative Consent Order mandating that $1.2 million in projects be developed and implemented to improve water quality in Watershops Pond. The goal of the projects is to improve water quality in an urban pond that receives urban runoff from tributary streams.

The first component of the project was to identify the problems within the pond and its tributary area. The second component was to develop a list of potential projects that could be successfully implemented within the project budget. In order to optimize what could be achieved within the project budget, the Commission intended to perform as much of the work as possible, including project research, field work, and construction. The Mayor appointed a committee to develop and prioritize projects; they included Planning, Conservation, DPW, Water and Sewer Commission, the Community Councils, and DEP representatives. Through an iterative process, the committee identified and developed a list of selected projects that would achieve the goals of the program.

Phase 1 consisted of projects that could be undertaken immediately and did not require contracted engineering, permitting, and construction services. Phase 1 projects consisted of Catch Basin Inserts, Catch Basin Replacement, and Shoreline Stabilization.

Overall, the Commission replaced approximately 25 non-functioning catch basins along the pond shoreline with deep sump Best Management Practice (BMP)-type catch basins. The Commission also implemented a pilot study of different types of BMP catch basin inserts. Where appropriate, the Commission stabilized shoreline along the pond where considerable erosion had taken place. This work was all performed with little or no complications.

One hundred percent of the budget was spent for labor or materials. The Commission was able to reconstruct all catch basins that discharged directly into the pond with BMP catch basins. The project cost was $186,000.

  Briarwood Sedimentation Basin with Watershops Pond in background

Phase 2 required contracted design and permitting services. These consisted of designing and constructing, or upgrading of upstream sedimentation basins to effectively capture sediments prior to entering the pond. The sedimentation basins would be designed to enable periodic removal of captured sediments. Phase 2 projects consisted of Briarwood Sedimentation Basin, Middlesex Sedimentation Basin, Carlisle Brook Dredge Project, and Breckwood Pond Dredge Project.

The Commission entered into a contract with a professional engineering firm to design and permit the projects. These projects required local, state, and federal permits for construction.

The committee worked closely with the regional office of the environmental agency in developing this program, and included them as a member of the committee established to develop and select projects.

The central office of the environmental agency reviewed the projects from a permitting perspective, and therefore solely reviewed the project from a permitting perspective. No consideration was given to the fact that these projects were developed as "Environmental Benefit Projects." These projects were reviewed as if they were required as part of some other development project that would adversely impact the environment. The original project was designed and permits submitted with the critical component being the use of gabion weirs to create the proposed basin. The environmental agency considered the use of the gabions as filling in the wetland, which increased the square footage of the project above a 5,000-square-foot threshold. Furthermore, the environmental agency stated that a wetland resource area could not be used for stormwater management. They stated that a variance could be applied for with a lengthy process (approximately one year), with no guarantee that the variance would be granted. After consideration, and at a cost to the Commission, the project was redesigned to be below the impact threshold in order to avoid the risk associated with applying for a variance. The redesigned project was of a reduced size, and did not have the equivalent treatment capacity.

There were many instances in Phase 2 where specific interpretations of the regulations could have benefited the projects from a design, permitting, and construction perspective, but were not. Some examples are listed below.

  • The Breckwood Pond and Carlisle Brook projects involved dredging of existing upstream man-made basins. These basins have been effective at capturing sediment prior to entering Watershops Pond proper for decades. As a practical matter, if these man-made basins were able to be dredged without permitting and design, a considerable amount of money could have been saved.

  • Clarification/Interpretation of wetland use and thresholds became an issue with the Briarwood Sedimentation basin.

  • The permit for the Water Quality Certificate for Breckwood Pond was given rigorous review by the district environmental agency. The district environmental agency required multiple submittals and reviews of the project. This included a requirement that a detailed construction methodology be submitted. Providing means and methods for construction is not typical as part of the permitting process. Our engineer had not experienced a requirement of this level of detail with other regions of the environmental agency. Each iteration of the plans submitted incurred additional design cost. Subsequent to approval of the means and methods, the environmental agency required that a flow contingency plan be submitted. This was also at additional cost to the Commission, and was not a written requirement of the permitting process.

  • At the Briarwood Sedimentation Basin an offsite compensatory wetland was required to mitigate impacts to the existing wetland. This resulted in a costly construction effort. Regulations have a blanket statement that an equal linear foot length of impacted shoreline must be restored.

  • The environmental agency required that a Beneficial Reuse Analysis be completed to demonstrate that the spoils material from Breckwood Pond would not be wasted or used as fill.

Conclusion: For Phase 2 work, the Commission will spend approximately $614,000 for design, permitting, construction oversight and permit compliance; while only $400,000 will be spent for actual construction.

Although regulatory and permitting requirements provide a framework for safely proceeding with construction projects, the cost associated with fulfilling all of these requirements is costly. In this case 60% of the funds were spent on design and permitting (paperwork) and only 40% of the funds were used to provide an actual environmental benefit.

  24-inch storm outfall at Briarwood St.

Comment: One of the most difficult things to do is holding teams together both on the environmental regulatory side and the public works side throughout the entire project. In Phase 1 of the Workshops Pond Restoration Project there was a team working together making choices that made sense. Many times when projects are transferred to a central office or the players change on the public works side, it can completely change the goals, objectives, and the intent of a project. Public works officials and environmental regulators should work together to ensure there will be continuity throughout a project.

6. Creativity - Most public works officials and environmental regulators are college educated. The greatest skill set taken away from a university is the ability to think. It is imperative that public works officials create projects that are both innovative, cost effective, and meet the requirements of environmental rules and regulations. The environmental regulator should attempt to fit a good environmental project within the bounds of the environmental rules and regulations.

7. Mediation - Oftentimes conflicts between public works officials and environmental regulators end up with project delays and more costly construction. What really suffers in the end is environmental benefit. Both public works officials and environmental regulators need to create a fair and impartial mediation process. The thought would be to establish a group of seasoned professionals with exemplary track records, who have developed similar projects, to take the role as "Master" to give advice to the parties in settling differences.

8. Motivation - In most environmental projects there are a number of players involved, as discussed above. Each is motivated to influence a project in differing ways and may not be looking out for the public at large, but a special interest. The two parties obligated to protect for the public at large are the environmental regulator and the public works official. The success of many environmental projects relies heavily on the posture these two parties take. Public input is imperative to craft good environmental projects; however, good science, engineering, environmental laws and regulations should set the foundation in the development and review of an environmental project. Strong professional standards and positions to the public by both entities, despite popularity, will go a long way in emerging with a good environmental project.

9. Cost/Benefit - Money is a critical factor in the development of any environmental project and lines need to be drawn somewhere. If it cost $10 million to get to a 95% solution and $20 million to get to a 100% solution with minimum environmental benefit gained, the question needs to be asked, "Is this a sound public investment?" It should be the obligation of both environmental regulators and public works officials to work together to find this line. For every dollar spent on limited environmental gain, one less dollar can be invested in other projects that provide a greater environmental benefit.

10. Environmental Yield - The most important concept is left for last and that is the theory of Environmental Yield. The question that should be asked continuously by both the public works official and environmental regulator is, "What are the benefits to the environment by developing and building the project?" It is their obligation to ask themselves, "How will this project improve the environment?" If the question cannot be answered, it is probably not a good investment in public dollars or environmental protection. Too many projects in the past have taken on lives of their own without asking the benefit question. For example, theoretically if Springfield were able to spend $800+ million and completely eliminate all CSOs, the river still would not meet water quality standards because of other non-point source contributions. Therefore, it is important to balance the level of spending as it relates to the environmental benefit which will be achieved.

If a community plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars there needs to be a meaningful long-term benefit. Projects cannot be undertaken at the expense of all other necessary sewer or wastewater treatment improvements. A community cannot continue to spend money beyond the point of diminishing returns, just to meet absolute regulatory compliance. There should be a meaningful evaluation process to determine where to best spend our limited resources and achieve the best environmental benefit for our citizens. By asking the Environmental Yield question, the prudent investment of public funds and improvements to environmental protection will be realized.

In summary, both public works officials and environmental regulators have a tremendous stake in improving the environment and water quality for the next generation. The challenges to meet these goals will be in competition with other state and national programs for the same dollars. Just think of a coalition of public works officials and environmental regulators going to Congress together in supporting new moneys and regulations for environmental protection. If this sounds farfetched think it through. The foundation of the public works profession is to build infrastructure that protects the public and the environment. The foundation of an environmental regulator is to ensure that laws and regulations adopted by elected officials are carried out in such a manner to protect the environment. There is not a conflict between these two agendas. What is required is a new paradigm by both parties to realize that by working together as a team, water quality improvement across the nation will improve dramatically in the coming decades.

In the end, we are all working for the same people to protect the same environment so that our children's children can enjoy the benefits of our world. Next time you have a complex environmental issue share this article and discuss how both parties can achieve a win-win and end up where you both started—protecting the environment.

Joseph Superneau, P.E., is a member of the Water Resources Committee and President of the New England Chapter. He has guided numerous successful environmental projects as a public works director, consultant, utility manager and state transportation manager. He can be reached at (413) 787-6256 or joe.superneau@waterandsewer.org.

George Crombie, MPA, is the APWA Director-at-Large for Environmental Management and a past Top Ten recipient. He has been both a public works director and environmental regulator, and in these capacities has regulated and constructed numerous successful environmental projects. He can be reached at (802) 241-3603 or George.Crombie@state.vt.us.