Marginalized monitoring: adaptively managing urban stormwater.

Author:Scanlan, Melissa K.
Position:I. Introduction through IV. Scientific Developments, p. 1-32
  1. INTRODUCTION II. ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT THEORY AND SHORTFALLS III. LEGAL FRAMEWORK A. The Federal Framework for Municipal Storm water B. The Federal Framework Prohibiting Non Stormwater Discharges from MS4s IV. SCIENTIFIC DEVELOPMENTS V. ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT APPLIED TO STORMWATER A. Research Methodology B. Research Findings 1. Clean Water Act Obstacles to Adaptive Management a. Water Quality Standards b. Regulations of MS4s' Illicit Discharge Program Are Barriers to Addressing Human Sewage Problems c. MS4 Permits Lack Clear Standards for 3rd Party Data 2. Non-Regulatory Obstacles to Adaptive Management a. Dissemination of Science Through Trusted Intermediaries b. Science Interpretation and Communication to Non-Scientists c. Awareness of Science Not Disseminated to Field Staff--Appropriate Scale of Adaptive Management d. Practical Concerns About Testing Methods e. Lack of Clear Standards Impacts Budgeting for Stormwater f. Triage Barrier C. Analysis and Lessons Learned 1. Clear Procedures Are Needed for the Use of Monitoring Data Generated by 3rd Party or Non-Agency Scientists 2. Clear Standards Are Needed to Update Monitoring Methods 3. Discretion May Allow Avoidance of Management Responsibilities and Regulators and Citizens Will Find Enforcement Impracticable 4. Lack of Clear Standards May Undermine Agency Budgets and Make it Difficult to prioritize Actions to produce Cleaner Water 5. Time and Resource Costs of Adaptive Management May be Balanced by Cost Savings from Scientific Accuracy 6. Trusted Intermediaries Are Essential for Science Extraction and Communication to Resource Managers 7. The Clean Water Act and its Implementing Regulations Need to Be More Adaptive to Science VI. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    A child returns from playing at the beach and within two days is severely sickened with intestinal illness, fever, and eye infections. (1) She has been unwittingly exposed to microscopic fecal pathogens from human sewage. (2) This is not an isolated story; in the United States, pathogens from fecal contamination are the leading cause of impairments to river, stream, bay and estuary water quality, and one of the top ten causes of impairments to lakes. (3) Images of raw human sewage in waterbodies are often associated with the need to build infrastructure for sanitation projects in developing countries. (4) However, this narrative comes from the United States, and is a story about the aging, crumbling and leaking water infrastructure buried beneath major urban population centers.

    Due to scientific advancements, researchers now have the ability to identify the presence of human sewage in places it should not be. Across the United States, from the California coast to the East Coast and the Great Lakes in between, scientists are finding evidence of human sewage leaking out of cracked and corroded or misconnected pipes. In some situations, this raw sewage is seeping into groundwater supplies; in cities dependent on groundwater for their drinking water, this poses a significant public health problem. (5) In other situations, human sewage is reaching stormwater pipes, which are designed to quickly move rain and melting snow from urban streets and discharge it untreated into rivers and lakes. (6)

    The scientific research provides a new window into the world of water infrastructure. Previously, concerns about human sewage contaminating water centered almost exclusively on issues related to the management of wastewater treatment plants and their combined or sanitary sewer overflows. (7) Similarly, academic and professional literature about municipal stormwater presumes stormwater only contains pollutants related to runoff from city streets and lots - things like fertilizers, oil and grease. (8) However, advances by scientists in detection and specificity around sources of bacteria have altered our understanding of the problems faced in the built environment and illuminated a looming and costly human health problem with water infrastructure. (9) While this aging infrastructure problem may impact both groundwater-based drinking water supplies and oceans, lakes, rivers and streams via stormwater, this research focuses solely on urban stormwater. Yet, the lessons learned in this research could be beneficially applied to the drinking water aspect of the problem as well.

    In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created an iterative regulatory structure for detecting and eliminating non-stormwater discharges from untreated municipal stormwater. (10) Unlike traditional wastewater permits issued pursuant to the Clean Water Act (CWA), which contain prescriptive end-of-pipe pollution limits, the permits for municipal stormwater discharges rely heavily on "Best Management Practices" and reducing pollution to the "Maximum Extent Practicable." (11) This regulatory structure, like others that are more iterative than prescriptive, may benefit from carefully incorporating adaptive management theory, which promotes a continuous learning process for resource managers. According to adaptive management theory, agencies are encouraged to learn as they implement their programs; the understanding is that such learning would allow programs to come closer to achieving their goals by routinely incorporating new information. Although Congress gave wide latitude to municipalities to structure their urban stormwater programs, and anticipated the programs would improve over time, it did not carefully structure the program to promote continual learning and incorporate scientific advances. This is particularly problematic in the failure to utilize new monitoring techniques that provide clearer and more accurate information about public health risks from stormwater.

    When Congress created this new regulatory structure for urban stormwater, it lacked the tools to appreciate the extent to which human sewage was leaking or plumbed into storm sewers. As scientists develop additional knowledge about stormwater systems, however, water managers' tools should become more sophisticated and fine tuned to more efficiently deliver on the 1972 promise of the Clean Water Act to have fishable and swimmable waters throughout the United States. Applying adaptive management to municipal stormwater, one would expect urban water managers to be aware of and apply new scientific sleuthing to identify, prioritize, and fix leaking sewage and storm water infrastructure problems. And yet, the environmental management theories, laws, and science are plagued by a range of disconnects that result in continuing human health risk related to contaminated waters.

    This research weaves together the disconnected strands of science, law, and environmental management through a case study of adaptive management in the context of stormwater contaminated by human sewage. We use qualitative research interviews with urban stormwater managers to identify what encourages and discourages the application of useful scientific discoveries to better manage water systems. From this grounding, we show that the potential for adaptive management to support more efficient spending of public funds for resource management is not being fulfilled. We draw out some of the missing elements in the legal structure that could be fine-tuned to better incorporate scientific advancements.

    We start this article by explaining adaptive management theory in Section II. We then describe the federal laws that establish a more iterative, rather than prescriptive, regulatory framework for urban stormwater and illicit discharges of human sewage in Section III. Next we characterize the scientific advancements that allow for identification of human-specific fecal bacteria, which is evidence of human sewage, in Section IV. Then we explore through qualitative research interviews with urban stormwater managers whether and how those charged with identifying and eliminating sources of human sewage from their stormwater systems apply adaptive management in Section V. In conclusion, we offer recommendations aimed at removing obstacles to and encouraging more scientifically-informed water management decisions.


    The theory of adaptive management arose out of an approach developed by C.S. "Buzz" Holling in the 1970s. (12) The crux of this theory was that ecosystems acted as dynamic, rather than static systems; therefore, traditional natural resource management approaches of "attack[ing] environmental stressors in piecemeal fashion, one at a time," and apportioning decisionmaking "among a variety of mission-specific agencies and resource-specific management regimes" were inadequate. (13) Instead, a more effective response to dynamic systems would be one that focused on collecting, testing, and applying information in these dynamic systems (14) to shift from...

To continue reading