National Municipal Stormwater Association Executive Director Seth Brown touches on COVID-19's impact on the storm water sector.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, SWS Managing Editor Katie Johns spoke with various industry association leaders about how those associations were responding to COVID-19 and how the industry was being impacted. For more Q&As and to see the results of the SWS Market Impact Survey, check out this digital-exclusive report.
Katie Johns: My first question is kind of looking at the overall picture. What kind of impact have you seen on the storm water industry so far?
Seth Brown: There's a couple of different ways that I've seen impacts. For storm water program managers there are those impacts that are associated with activities that rely on working in pairs or teams of people like site inspections, BMP inspections, things like that. For safety purposes, and it's just a requirement legally, that you have to work in pairs at least, so those activities have been limited or completely stopped. The same thing with site meetings and field meetings. If someone from a storm water program has to go meet with a land developer or a property owner or is looking at local drainage issues or looking at a site they're trying to figure out how to address, you have to go there and do a site visit and talk with them. That's not happening, so that's another impediment. Public meetings are a big part of meeting your requirements for MS4, so that's not happening. Even training, whether you train your own staff or you give training, which you're going to always associate with permit requirements and daily activity associated with a storm water program, all of those types of things are just impossible or tough to do right now. There's a lot of storm water programs and states or locals that are talking to the states about the need for some relaxing of schedules.
Then there's if “I have to get documents,” “if I can't review a set of plans” and “if I don't have my computer and I have to go to the building. I can't get access.” There's just very many tangible things that I can't do that obviously delays the efforts to review site plans for instance or to process permits, so there's that. And then there's “if I have to produce an annual report to meet my program, again, I don't have access to other people or to other documents,” and “if I have to update or need permit or documentation in other ways, I can't do that.”
There's a request that's going out formerly I know by many across the country to get relaxation of deadlines and procedures associated with these delays, so I think in a very immediate way that’s the daily basis of things. I'll say that another impact of this is that I've received information and requests for letters of support for communities that are already seeing their local budgets being cut this year and significant cuts for next year that are planned. They're looking at reducing their watershed planning group or their sustainability group that includes storm water as an example. Like 20 to 40% of their city budgets are being cut in some instances, so that's going to make it harder for entities and cities and communities and counties to do the work in the future as well. I think that there's the immediate impacts, but I think there's going to be a longer lasting impact. It's no fault of anybody's, obviously, but local governments that rely on hotel fees and and sales taxes or local sales tax from transactions associated with restaurants, is an example, those types of revenues have really, really dropped. We have no idea what the real impact is going to be, so I think there's a lot of hand wringing about like, what does that mean in the future?
I'll just throw a number of 10 FTEs in my program, and I needed to do these 300 things to meet my permit conditions. If I only have three FTEs left or the equivalent thereof, am I expected to do all these things still in the same timeframe? I think that there's going to be an ongoing lingering issue.We still have no idea how bad it's going to be, how long it's going to be. So I think that there's a lot of worry that way and then that doesn't even get into the consulting world.
Johns: The first stimulus bill from Congress didn't specify water infrastructure, but in the future, how would funding like that help?
Brown: It’s interesting because I’ve been spending time with legislators, virtually, and reading legislation and talking with other groups about this. What's frustrating to me as a storm water person is draft legislation for instance, that talks up water and wastewater, that's the phrase that's used right? Let's take it step back even further. So once you get into infrastructure, the first thing you think of roads and bridges, so even talking about water, it's like another level down and even when you get into water, it’s water and wastewater. It's rarely about storm water. We've been working to try to advocate as much as we can for the need for storm water. I There's been work done by drinking water and wastewater groups to estimate the impacts. There's the impact of lost revenue for different sectors. Well, how do you estimate that? One way to do that is to look at, are people unable to pay their utility bills?
If that's the case for water and wastewater, you can measure that. That's because 99.9% or so of revenues come from utility fees and rates, right? The storm water sector is only like 25% or 30% of programs have any kind of fee-based revenue or dedicated revenue and most of that is fee-based, but not all of them necessarily. How do you quantify easily the impacts to the sector? When you don't have a transaction taking place, most programs are just kind of picking from the general funds on an annual basis, so I think it's hard to advocate for storm water that way, but there are ways to do it, and we've done some analysis to look at.
Thankfully the Water Environment Federation’s done their MS4 needs survey, and I think that's given us some understanding of what the budgets are. That's always an important thing. But even now, what is the budget for storm water programs across the country? Is it 10 billion is it 50 billion? We've estimated what that is and you could say “well you know, it's this many billions of dollars and you know what impacts we’re seeing in other sectors. We're seeing similar impacts on storm water sector and we should get some kind of compensation for that for our programs.
If 70-75% of an industry or a sector is funded through general funds, which are at the local level, which are being funded through personal property taxes primarily, and that all drops significantly, new tax revenues drop significantly. It's not just property taxes, but it's also again, transactional stuff, sales tax, whatever other things that feed into general fund obviously that whole pay has been shrunk quite a bit. Then you have to think that the funds available to storm water programs is significantly reduced. It's harder to quantify them. So anyway, that's the kind of thing that we're trying to look at. It's a lot easier for some infrastructure sectors to quantify.
That's the kind of stuff that needs to happen. This is another reason I think that we need be at the ready, like other sectors that are to be able to advocate quickly and effectively and clearly and accurately about the needs and the impact of the sector. We're still not there like other sectors are, but we're trying to be there. I'll just say that as the National Municipal Stormwater Alliance, we’re working with other groups. We're trying to make sure that we have a seat at the table because bills are being thrown together on a weekly basis. The window is very, very small and if you don't have your ducks in a row, you could miss out.
We’re trying to remain engaged and involved with what's going on with these bills. It's just harder to do and hopefully our efforts to get storm water included with other, wider sectors will be successful. It’s just a little bit more of a challenge since it's fee-based and utility based. Hopefully he nuance and the challenges associated with that are recognized by legislation and or somehow made whole in the future that whether it's through support to states and localities is another way that this can happen as well.It’s another data point to me about how important it is for the storm water sector to be increase, its maturation pace to get up to speed and be at the table with the other water sectors so that we can advocate for the impacts and the needs of our sector as well.
Johns: How has the National Municipal Stormwater Alliance been impacted by COVID-19?
Brown: The direct thing is that we work with others in the water sector during Water Week, for example, which is their annual congressional fly-in. I'm located in the Washington D.C. area, and part of my job is to meet with federal legislators and regulators on behalf of the organization and also to provide a pathway for members who are in involved in, or want to be involved with, going up to the Hill and meeting with EPA. That whole effort was canceled this year. The work that's usually done that way has to be done in different ways, so we've been doing virtual meetings and calls and having Zoom meetings with congressional staff and EPA regulators.
That's not a substitute. It's another pathway forward, but it's not a substitute from sitting across the table and really being able to advocate and providing a pathway or a forum for folks. For someone actually running a program to be able to say, “this is my experience. This is the struggle that I'm having. These are the needs that we have.” That's a different communication, and we're losing that. We've lost that and we're not alone, obviously, but that's a tangible impact that we've had. We have to adapt and do what we can within this context.
We have been successful getting some language into the water bill that's being developed right now. But in, looking at issues, such as the Supreme Court ruling, the Maui ruling, normally we would want to advocate on that and maybe meet with EPA and ask “what does this mean? How does this impact us?” We can do that, and we’re having calls to do that, but again, sitting across the table addressing several issues on one Supreme Court issue is one thing. Another, could be Waters of the U.S. you know, impacting ephemeral streams. We have experiences that look like this and being able to have that in-person dynamic to advocate, because again, advocacy is such an important thing. You can do so much digitally, remotely or Zoom-wise or however you want to call it, but it's just not the same.
We've had to cancel in-person meetings and we've had to replace them. There are events that I was scheduled to go to to further grow our organization, to support existing members and their events. A big principle of NMSA is that we don’t have conferences because there's enough conferences out there. We feel like there's not a need for another one, which is not a knock on anybody's conference. We want to help support existing conferences, especially the local conferences. tt's very hard for a lot of small and midsize program folks to make it to large, national conferences, but yet they're interested in,and they're hungry for a national voice.
And they're also interested in hearing things from the national level because to a certain degree, they do impact the program trend, especially now storm water is such a nascent sector compared to others that the world is still kind of being made into policy in this area. I think there's a lot of hunger for this, and the one way to do that or a way to do that is to meet folks where they are. I think that we make a point of trying to do as much as we can.
There's a human element of that lost there and the side conversations that you get that have a great value when you go to events like this and just being able to hear people and their challenges in a real way. We're primarily a virtual organization except for when we go and spend time meeting with folks in their locations,so it's not been impactful the same way it has been impactful for others that are more traditional and have a staff of 300.
Johns: You touched on this a little bit, but a lot of events have been canceled or postponed, so how can people continue to network with others and continue education?
Brown: I don't have a good answer to that to be honest with you. What I sense is a lot of people, and I feel this way about myself, that a lot of people thought that they'd have more time, but now they're as busy as ever, and they're balancing supporting kids at home and homeschooling and, and taking care of elderly family members that they needed to be checked in on. There's a human element to this that's really significant and it's become more real.
Ttime has become just more limited. It just feels like there's just, Zoom call after Zoom call. That's the way it feels for me. When I look at my schedule for next week, I'm like, “Oh, wow. I've got a lot open.” Today is a Wednesday and then by the time Friday comes around, my next week is all Zoomed up at this point. I think that we're all hungering for that communication and that connection, and I think we're trying to supplant that with zoom calls and whatnot. I'm trying to do more of that to make up for the fact that we don't have the human element. I have been trying to be more mindful of how much of this is done to the day, and it's hard to find large blocks of time open now, frankly, that used to be open more because we used to be a little more relaxed with our schedules. I mean we're all busy, but it’s a different dynamic that way. It's more challenging to find that time to think and to work than I would have expected. I'll say that much.
Johns: Is there anything you want to add that we didn't touch on?
Brown: One thing that really hasn't been discussed a whole lot, which I think would be interesting, is the actual impact of coronavirus in storm water programs beyond just the operational stuff and also just the public health impacts related to this that may not be considered. A couple of examples are there's coronavirus that's been found and being used to determine loadings of coronavirus in wastewater effluent. The assumption is well that that shouldn't happen because the disinfection process should address that, but it doesn’t address everything. And in situations where you have overflows, especially in beachfront areas, my understanding about the virus is that it floats on the water, and that means more easily aerosolized. Water spray is one of the biggest sources for aerosolized particles that’s out there. When you've got effluent that has coronavirus, and it's been aerosolized, and people are at the beach, the whole six-foot thing is obviously no longer appropriate at that point. It's gotta be probably 30 feet or 50 feet. I think that that's a real thing that we're going to look at over the years in the past in the future and that might be something that we'll look at and say, “wow, that's something we should have been more aware of.” It might not be, but I'm just thinking that people think it's only the social contact and that's obviously the biggest issue, but there could be other sources from the water itself that we might learn had bigger impacts that are yet to be seen. I don't think it's something that we need to be afraid of and same way you do in other situations, but I just wonder about these types of things.
Also green infrastructure, obviously, I think one of the benefits of these types of practices in our urban areas is it helps air quality, which with an aerosolized situation can't hurt. Obviously, we don't know how much it does or does not impact, but I'll just say this as somebody who's been homebound, like everybody else in an urban area, and I've got access to green space and trails and that may not be true for others, but that access has been critical for mental health and physically having that separation, I think the space helps us do that. I'll just say that there's a lot of value for green space, especially in ultra urban and densely populated areas that would be helpful. That's not related directly to water treatment or storm water treatment or runoff, but it has to do with green infrastructure, which is obviously related directly to storm water management, especially more and more in the future. Hopefully there's an appreciation for the dynamics associated with that, and we'll be trying to get involved. We'll see how big these things play a role and in 10 years from now. I'm sure there's more that we can talk about or think about and we'll probably learn more in the future, but those are the things that come to mind.