The ever-shrinking job market, aging baby boomers and rapid technology growth have created a need for storm water generalists who can do it all—use off-the-shelf and proprietary tools to conduct modeling studies; plan, assess and design storm water and water resource projects; resolve complex problems such as conflicting design requirements and unsuitability of conventional materials; and prepare and review a myriad of reports, including technical and regulatory specifications, contract documents and cost estimates.
No longer is storm water management a niche position filled by hydraulic and hydrologic specialists; now it encompasses everything from business development to contract bidding and administration to project management. Furthermore, storm water-related jobs are not limited to civil engineering and construction companies; they now are found in federal, state and local governments, scientific consulting and services firms, research and development companies and waste management organizations.
At the same time, rising population growth, crumbling infrastructure, growing concern for the environment and a need to comply with tighter environmental laws and regulations have created increasing demand for environmental engineers knowledgeable of storm water management. Many developers today are taking a proactive approach by working to prevent rather than control problems, requiring engineers who can use science and engineering principles to ensure the preservation of natural resources, the use of environmentally beneficial materials and the health and safety of residents. Environmental engineers also design remediation systems to counter the effects of pollutants on soil and groundwater and retrofit existing storm water systems to mimic predevelopment hydrology and restore ecosystems to their predevelopment state.
Storm Water Staff as Generalists
With unemployment on the rise, it is no surprise that some career boards report a 50% decline in the number of storm water-related jobs over the past two years. Fewer jobs usually means that the people who do have jobs have more to do, and that seems to be the case here. More storm water-related employees are expected to come to the job not only with knowledge of the general engineering field, hydrology, hydraulics and water quality, but also knowledge of best management practice design and local, state and federal water programs’ regulations as well as experience in site design, work plan development, data collection and analysis and preparation of technical memoranda, reports and presentations.
To get a job in today’s tight market, storm water-related workers must possess technical knowledge dealing with a range of topics, including soils, pollutants, watershed management, storm water/drainage management, water rights, water quality modeling, environmental permitting and economic analysis. In addition to these hard skills, engineers are expected to be fluent in softer interpersonal skills involving organization, management, communication and problem solving. Successful employees also need to be self-motivated, with the ability to work both on one’s own and within a large team environment.
Higher-level jobs require knowledge of and experience with more advanced topics such as conducting hydraulic, hydrologic and water quality modeling studies, using specialized computer software for data analysis, developing GIS applications and developing and updating computer code to create new analysis tools. Advanced workers also provide senior leadership for engineers involved in storm water-related projects and may prepare proposals and conduct other marketing activities to gain new business.
Storm Water Staff as Environmentalists
Engineers have a long history of working to minimize the environmental impacts of land development and to maintain or improve our nation’s environmental health. Many storm water-related workers are tasked with protecting our natural habitats, systems and resources by finding ways to maintain existing hydrologic patterns, reduce impervious surfaces, maximize undisturbed natural areas, minimize runoff and pollutants and take advantage of the natural retention, absorption and infiltration capabilities of vegetation and soils. Increasingly, environmental engineers are required to provide “green” and sustainable site management technologies and practices, making sure to integrate sustainability into every aspect of the development project.
In 1972, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enacted the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System storm water permit program to regulate sources, such as developments, that discharge pollutants into U.S. waters and waterways. In 2007, the EPA introduced the Green Infrastructure initiative to highlight opportunities for municipalities to increase the development and use of green infrastructure to infiltrate, evapotranspirate or reuse storm water.
Legislation is changing at a fast pace, and environmental engineers have to keep up with the latest rules, regulations and enforcement procedures at all government levels. Increasing numbers of localities are adopting low-impact development ordinances as treatment control for pollutants and pursuing the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. To comply with these environmental regulatory requirements, engineers must be familiar with the specifics of the ordinances and engineering standards related to storm water management in addition to keeping accurate, clear and concise records.
To complete a land development project successfully, environmental engineers have to examine the project in its entirety, considering each design decision in terms of costs and benefits not only to the company and client but also to the environment and balancing the costs of different types of green materials with the benefits of long-term storm water management.
As this article has shown, storm water management trends, technologies and legislation are ever-changing. In order to maintain a job in this field, it is more important than ever for storm water-related workers to take advantage of every continuing education opportunity that comes their way.
To be successful, storm water-related engineers need a strong understanding of the water/storm water industry and new design standards and technologies. They also need experience in water resources, drainage, flood control and green infrastructure technologies. These individuals must read technical journals, attend professional conferences and interact with colleagues in order to keep up to date on the latest materials, standards and technologies and offer the greatest value to their employers. Even experienced storm water-related engineers need to keep abreast of the latest topics and often can benefit from a refresher course on the basics.
In the same way, if companies want to keep their employees, they must provide not only competitive salaries and benefits but also opportunities for continuing education and enhancement. In today’s work environment, learning new things can be a win-win situation for both employers and employees.