Innovation in Stormwater? Why the Hell Not?!

The great George Hawkins, Manager of DC Water (photo from bayjournal.com)

The great George Hawkins, Manager of DC Water (photo from bayjournal.com)

I was lucky enough to be a judge in the DC Water Green Infrastructure Design Challenge, which meant that I got the chance to review the GI designs submitted in this event and provide feedback and input on who should be selected to receive one of the awards and possibly get a chance to move on to the implementation phase of the competition.  Good stuff.  The pic above shows DC Water General Manager, George Hawkins, who emceed the event – one cannot say enough good things about George’s role in the water sector and his ability to articulate a strong and clear message on the importance of water, motivate the seemingly unmotivatible (sp?), and reduce the cynicism in the sector overall.  He’s the rare breed of visionary who is grounded in reality and with the rare gift to communicate concisely and effectively.

On a related, I got a chance to see George in action as he rolled out DC Water’s GI Plan shortly after the competition event was held, and then ended up in a meeting with him a few days later.  In the later meeting, George made a point that, while not technically earth shattering, is one that I hadn’t thought of in the light he presented it and not nearly as passionately as he laid it out.   His point was this – the lack of innovation in the drinking water sector is somewhat understandable.  I mean, you make a mistake, and people either a) don’t have water to drink, or b) the water they drink is bad and bad things result.  So what’s the incentive to try new things here?  Of course, there are arguments for sustainability, water conservation and efficiency, etc., but the point is that the deck is stacked against you to a certain degree as a manager of a drinking water utility.  Wastewater is not much better – try something new that fails here and you have high volumes of raw or poorly-treated sewage in your receiving waters or you have a system that backs-up into houses and businesses – neither is a great result.

Being a master communicator, George framed this in terms of pop culture – for instance, he cited Reebok’s first campaign to mainstream sneakers as fashion back in the early 80’s, which failed (and then succeeded wildly not to much later by Nike’s Air Jordan campaign), and another 80’s failure in marketing – New Coke.  These two examples highlight the fact that the private sector can produce innovations that are allowed to fail (if they can absorb the failure, that is, financially), but the water sector doesn’t have that freedom.  I’m going to take his argument one step further here and argue that while the drinking and wastewater sectors have challenges to innovation as mentioned above, stormwater does not have the same pressures of delivering a consistent service day-in and day-out.  As Andy Reese, the great seer in stormwater, has said – if it’s not raining out today, all stormwater infrastructure is operating 100% perfectly.  And let’s look at the track record in the stormwater sector – it ain’t great.  Practices are often not constructed properly, are mis-placed on projects, or not even constructed at all.  And even when they are constructed properly, many do not/have not functioned to a high degree of efficiency or performance.  We deserve better, and frankly with the leeway we’re given on things compared with the rest of the water sector, there is little reason for innovation to NOT occur.

The most limiting factor for innovation in stormwater, in my opinion, is money.  And this is tied to the perceived value of stormwater treatment.  So while innovation is hampered by the need for the drinking and wastewater sectors to provide service 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, it is EXACTLY the fact that we need these services so badly that we will pour great sums of money into this infrastructure.  Before my friends in the water/wastewater sector throw virtual tomatoes (Dan Quayle spelling) at the screen, let me say that whatever money goes into these sectors is still WAY below what it needs to be – which spells out all the more the fact that stormwater management is under-valued, as in many instances, the money going towards stormwater is an order of magnitude – or less – of that going into wastewater.  If we could correct this somehow, we would start to see more research and a higher bar of performance expected from stormwater practices and programs.  As we know, however, many efforts to raise funds through stormwater utilities or similar frameworks are belittled and reduced down to absurd arguments, such as “taxing the rain” and other nonsensical labels.  The fight continues, and will continue, but hopefully we can start to align the need with the investment in the stormwater sector – and that goes for the water sector as a whole, as George Hawkins will point out, their utility supports every single business and household in the District – without water, where would anyone be?