The greatest threat to receiving waters is stormwater runoff. According to EPA, non-point source pollution is the primary reason almost half the nation’s surveyed rivers, lakes, and estuaries aren’t clean enough for fishing or swimming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 80% of water pollution comes from the land shedding polluted runoff.

Federal and state regulators have the authority to require municipalities to build or enhance infrastructure to control and mitigate this runoff. Given existing wastewater and combined sewer program challenges and asset needs, however, this increasing regulatory pressure puts communities in a very difficult position.

Suddenly, traditional clean water projects aren’t enough to meet obligations. Municipalities must find new ways to improve water quality and restore impaired waters.

As with any paradigm shift, the solution can initially be uncomfortable. Fortunately, as some water and sewer utilities are proving, a more affordable path exists.

Integration: water as a single resource

In 2012, EPA released the Integrated Planning and Permitting Policy (IP3), a methodology for holistically addressing watershed health.

Ideally, an integrated approach would direct limited resources toward the most cost-effective management of point-source stormwater, wastewater, and nonpoint sources. It would include management actions that directly address biological impairments through in-situ restoration. It would result in cost savings, achievable capital renewal plans, targeted operations investments, balanced and equitable rate and fee structures, collaboration between stakeholders and regulatory entities, improved receiving water quality, and sustainable utility systems.

Sounds perfect.

In effect, though, the obligation is to restore the entire watershed. Accomplishing this goal means finding workforce resources, technology, and public outreach methods to support and finance a much broader, diverse undertaking.

So far, integrated planning has been most successful when swapping expensive conventional combined sewer abatement or sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) management for less costly stormwater management projects. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) maintains a library of integrated plans. They’ve become more common over the last several years and make good sense for combined sewer overflow abatement and SSO compliance.

But cost-effective watershed restoration is impossible if permittees simply swap compliance obligations.

In 1978, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had the Cape Cod Commission develop a plan for mitigating nitrogen generated by septic systems in the popular tourist destination. In June 2015, the commission released its second update since then. The work to be undertaken by various agencies requires enhanced public outreach around a broadened suite of capital projects and diversified workforce skills that may not currently exist.

For example, an integrated plan released in July 2014 for the Town of Durham, N.H., recommended oyster bed restoration, green infrastructure, and fertilizer control outreach as well as more traditional wastewater upgrades, septic system best management, and agricultural nutrient control. Some of these activities aren’t within the organizational framework of any public works department, let alone a rural community like Durham. But they’re necessary to meet total nitrogen load reduction requirements.

Becoming a 'Utility of the Future'

In addition to NACWA, the Water Environment Federation (WEF), Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF), American Water Works Association, and American Public Works Association are working to define what an integration-capable public agency looks like.

A collaboration of NACWA, WEF, WERF, and WateReuse, the 2015 Annual Report of the Utility of the Future points out that becoming such an operation requires an "innovation ecosystem" comprised of technology developers, consulting engineers and scientists, government, the finance community, and professional organizations.

The “innovation ecosystem” is essentially a support network for employees who are going to implement unfamiliar projects. The relatively young profession of stormwater management requires a different expertise. Significant cross-training is necessary to attain the ability to go from installing gray infrastructure, to maintaining green infrastructure, to in-stream restoration, to agricultural BMP collaboration, to developing social marketing campaigns about fertilizer use.

“One has to be a jack-of-all-trades,” says California Stormwater Quality Association Executive Director Geoff Brosseau in Stormwater Champions: A Look Forward After 25 years. “One day a manager may be dealing with pesticide, construction, or trash issues, and the next he or she may be conducting an industrial inspection or writing a report.”

Gather employees and activities into a single division focused exclusively on meeting clean water obligations.

Three ways to move from concept to reality

While municipalities across the country face the same fundamental issues, several factors complicate things further for utilities in New England.

One is the lack of regional governance structures that create a management scale sufficient to employ forward-thinking philosophies. New England has more than 1,500 individual jurisdictions across six states, many so small they employ only a few people. These men and women are the primary authorities for stormwater and wastewater management, and hence, water quality restoration requirements, through municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) or wastewater permits.

Here’s how they can work toward becoming a Utility of the Future.

Consolidate your team. Organizational assessments we’ve conducted in several New England cities indicate that establishing a dedicated Water Resources division is critical.

Many public agencies scatter water resources skills and staff throughout the organization. Aligning asset managers, compliance managers, and maintenance staff under a single division focused on clean water infrastructure and non-infrastructure solutions enhances efficiencies and leverages competencies.

Small communities can do this by moving stormwater service into the wastewater division. Quincy and Lawrence, Mass. (populations 92,000 and 76,000; respectively), for example, recently consolidated stormwater compliance, asset management, and operations staff skills into a single water/sewer/drain division.

Atlanta is an ideal large-city example.

Water treatment and reclamation, linear infrastructure operations, engineering services, finance, and watershed protection are housed in a single department. The Department of Watershed Management’s mission is to provide high-quality water, excellent customer service, professional stewardship of all water systems, and protect the region’s water resources, public health, and property while promoting sustainability and economic vitality.

Arm yourself with the right technology. Being able to see sanitary sewer and stormwater illicit discharge results in real time ensures that investigation activities in both collection systems are fully explored before leaving an area. Thanks to web-based mapping services like Esri’s ArcGIS Online, asset managers and contractors have the same information at the same time, enabling them to cost-effectively troubleshoot.

For example, SSOs and the blockages or hydraulic limitations that largely cause them often contribute to MS4 illicit discharges. These locations may also indicate an underlying structural or operations and maintenance issue. The pipeline can become pressurized when a sanitary sewer is surcharged, increasing the likelihood of exfiltration that can migrate into adjacent drainage infrastructure.

Lawrence, Mass., is using a custom mobile SSO data collection tool, developed in collaboration with Woodard & Curran, with real-time reporting functionality that links to GIS-based asset information. Program managers easily access data that previously existed only on paper. Monitoring, tracking, and reporting SSOs in near real time and in openly accessible geodatabases improves analysis and prioritization of integrated investigation needs and meets multiple reporting obligations.

Make it personal. Watershed restoration is a communitywide problem that requires communitywide participation.

A survey conducted by the City of Portland, Maine, before rolling out new stormwater fees illustrates how much education the public requires. Almost two-thirds (57%) of respondents grasped the difference between separate and combined sewers, 53% knew how their sewer charge is calculated, and only 29% understood how the city funds stormwater and wastewater infrastructure repair.

The take-home message for public works was, “It’s not about how the money is raised, it’s how the money is spent.” People don’t care about organizational structure and billing; they just want water they can safely drink and play in.

That’s why the New England Water Environment Association’s updated marketing campaign doesn’t distinguish between drinking water, sewage, and rain.

Taglines for the Water for Life campaign are “You use water, we recycle it” and “When pollution comes out, we can all go in.” The message isn’t specific to infrastructure type or compliance program; it’s about clean water and what’s being done to protect it.

It’s easier to frame communications around capital improvements like treatment plant upgrades than shellfish restoration and aquaculture investments, but clean-water messaging is the outreach of the future. Portland’s logo exemplifies this by focusing on economic growth through clean water investment.

Aging infrastructure, compliance obligations, and limited funding will always be challenges. However, a few small steps toward organizational efficiency, technology utilization, and messaging to the public will support the continued and necessary development of the utility of the future.