Earlier this year, a colleague brought up the idea of each of us sharing for one of our blog topics, what our role is at Cuyahoga SWCD. I immediately checked the date of my next blog post and was eager to begin typing away about what it is I do during the weekday nine to five… or, rather, eight to four thirty.
The eagerness I felt in wanting to write a post like this is because I have had to deal with blank stares from people when I would say what my undergraduate degree was (more-so back when I was in or a recent graduate with my bachelors degree), and more recently the blank stares have been beamed at me when I am asked what it is that I do for a living. I suppose I understand the blank stares with regards to going to college for a degree in Environmental Geography, because people oftentimes equate a college degree with a specific profession (i.e. a degree in early-childhood education – the person is likely wanting to be a primary school teacher, a degree in broadcast journalism – the person is likely wanting to be a news reporter or anchor, and this list goes on and on).
The response I typically would get when I said “Environmental Geography” is, “Oh, what are you going to do with that? Do you want to… make… maps?”. While their tentative, maybe rhetorical question may seem vacuous, it is partially correct that I believed at the time that I wanted to work (at least part-time) with Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and make maps, but there is also a bountiful supply of tasks I was willing to learn, which would help me to advocate for the well-being of our natural environment. Likewise, when people ask what it is I do for a living, when I respond “I work for Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District” followed by, “so… I’m a Stormwater Specialist” followed by a long-winded description of what that entails. So, let me try to do my best to explain this long-winded description.
As a Stormwater Specialist, I am responsible for three technical duties:
1. Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP, or SWP3) reviews
This is the inception spot for active construction and post-construction inspections. A set of engineering plans called the SWP3 is either digitally or manually dropped off at our office, for review. This means that I must go through this set of plans using the Ohio EPA SWP3 checklist as a guide to ensure the submitted plans meets the standards of the Ohio EPA’s NPDES Construction Stormwater General Permit, and the Ohio Rainwater & Land Development Manual. In other words, I go through the submitted plans to make sure that a planned construction project has what it needs (on paper) to comply with the EPA permit by minimizing the impact of sediment-laden discharges, and other illicit discharges.
Minimizing these types of discharges is especially important in Cuyahoga County because typically, illicit discharges can make their way into our wetlands, streams, creeks, tributaries, rivers, and Lake Erie. If this occurs, these illicit discharges negatively impact the water quality within such freshwater systems. If the SWP3 has parts that need revisions, comments about this are sent back to the design engineer for revision. After the SWP3 meets the standards, I issue a Recommendation of Approval and request to attend a pre-construction meeting to discuss the SWP3 and go over any questions the excavator or general contractor may have.
2. Active construction stormwater inspections
The next step, once the project begins, is monthly active construction stormwater inspections. It really depends on the time of year, but during spring, summer, and fall, I do roughly 30 active construction inspections a month. At active construction inspections, I walk the site and inspect to see if the necessary Stormwater Control Measures (SCMs) are installed to minimize erosion on the site, and sediment-laden runoff from the site.
- I check to see if the perimeter controls (such as silt fence or compost filter sock) and storm drain inlet protection are installed.
- I check to see if the site has installed and how they are maintaining their stabilized construction entrance, which helps to reduce sediment and dirt from being tracked off-site.
- I check to see if temporary stabilization, such as aggregate, is installed in areas where equipment and vehicles are being used within the site, or seed and straw installed in other areas where dirt/soil is present.
- Another major thing I check to see is if the site is supposed to install a sediment settling pond with a skimmer. This pond during the construction phase allows sediment-laden runoff (from the site or that flows into storm drain inlets within the site boundary) to flow into the pond. Even if the storm drain inlets within the site have inlet protection, at best these inlet protection devices filter approximately 70% of the sediment, therefore having a sediment settling pond with a skimmer device installed is essential for reducing sediment-laden water from getting off-site. I could really discuss the different aspects about an active construction inspection in greater detail, but this being a blog, and not a chapter book, I will hold off on that for another time.
- At the end of each active construction site inspection, I briefly meet with the site supervisor to go over any issues I saw while on site. Although I am walking the site and taking photos with an iPad and writing in captions to send a report to the site supervisor, I feel that a quick meeting to discuss what I saw on site (both negative and positive) is important when trying to get the negative things fixed-up.
- After a day of active inspections, I typically will spend a good portion of the following day sending these reports. This takes some time because this is when I like to double-check what the plans say for each site, and I want to make sure that the construction sequence is going as it is intended, because often times things like installing building foundations is something that site supervisors like to focus their efforts on, while installing storm drain utilities and sediment settling ponds is the item which is supposed to occur prior to the building foundation.
- Towards the end of the active construction site completion is when I like to discuss about scheduling a post-construction transition meeting. At this on-site meeting is when a colleague (the Natural Resources Program Manager) and I discuss with the site supervisor, excavator, and a representative from the soon-to-be owner of the site, and often a city employee from whatever city the site is located, to go over the site’s permanent stormwater control measures, such as detention basins, and bioretention basins. My colleague and I check to make sure these features and outlet structures were installed correctly, and if not, we tell the site supervisor (and everyone involved in the meeting) the items which still need to be revised before the site can be considered SWP3 Complete.
3. Post-construction stormwater inspections
Once SWP3 Completed, the site is transitioned to our post-construction stormwater inspections (also known as a Long-Term Operations & Maintenance inspections), where I (or someone here at Cuyahoga SWCD) will do an annual inspection on the permanent stormwater control measure to make sure it is being properly maintained. These annual inspections can be a routine quick inspection if the stormwater control measure is well-maintained. A quick inspection may also include a site which has one underground detention system, where I use a hook or magnetic manhole lifter and check inside the system to see if it is has sediment accumulation and needs cleaned out.
However, many times these inspections take quite a bit longer than we anticipate. A lengthier inspection might be one at a housing development which has several detention basins which are not in good condition. Many of the detention/retention basins we inspect will typically need to have "touch-up" routine maintenance to help maintain their proper function, and unfortunately, a fair amount of the basins need major maintenance.
The ones that need major maintenance are the primary ones where I try to reach out to the site contact and let them know of the issue(s). Major repairs typically involve invasive vegetation throughout, or erosion gullies within one of these stormwater control measures. Making repairs to detention/retention basins, and bioretention basins in the earlier phases of needed maintenance can drastically help minimize more cumbersome maintenance in the future. Unfortunately, there have been several times I do see planned routine maintenance go awry, and these stormwater control measures become neglected and do not function as intended. In any case, all the sites where I do an annual Long-Term Operations & Maintenance stormwater inspection, I type a report and send it to an appropriate contact at the site. In 2021, I did somewhere in the range of 155-165 of these inspections.
The varying schedule of work out in the field and work in the office is something that I really enjoy having. On a day-to-day basis many other tasks and activities arise which also help to keep my schedule busy. My passion for the environment – especially for improving the water quality of our headwaters, tributaries, creeks, streams, rivers, and our great lake, truly help guide me through the avenues where this position has taken me.
I have learned substantially more than I would have ever believed I would about state and local environmental regulations with regards to discharge permits to surface waters and about the process of everything that goes into the development of a SWP3. If you would like to hear more about what I do, or would like additional information about stormwater, please feel free to contact me.
Blog Author: Chris Vasco, Stormwater Specialist