Mar 28, 2019

The Big Picture

Re-evaluating strategies to meet evolving needs

Heather Schmidt
Heather Schmidt

“Get the water off the streets!” 

That was the rallying cry for storm water management through most of the 20th century and certainly the reason for the creation of the Storm Water Management Program (SMP) in Johnson County, Kan., in 1998. Flooding became a major issue for Johnson County cities in the 1970s and 1980s leading to the creation of the SMP. The SMP is funded through a dedicated 1/10-of-one-cent sales tax, and the program’s purpose is to provide financial, technical and planning support services for municipalities within Johnson County for storm water management improvements. 

Developing the Program

Initially, the SMP was focused on efforts to reduce the impact of flooding. Activities included floodplain boundary mapping; coordinating Federal Emergency Management Agency efforts for municipalities; cost-sharing of flood improvement projects to protect homes, businesses and streets from flooding; and storm water improvement coordination across jurisdictional boundaries. The SMP also provided limited water quality support to the cities, mostly in the form of coordinating and facilitating municipal NPDES permitting activities. 

However, in the 2010s, the SMP began to recognize that the “state of the practice” of storm water management was changing and that the needs of the program stakeholders were changing with it. This spurred a strategic planning process that began in 2014 to reassess the current function of the program and determine the best way to move it forward. The SMP engaged Black and Veatch Corp. to lead a comprehensive program update. 

The steering committee's ultimate recommendation required key changes to the program. They included moving to a watershed-based organization, refocusing flood mitigation funds toward public safety, including system replacement projects, calling for an asset management program and enhancing focus on alternative funding sources. It envisioned six newly created watershed organizations that would work together to bring projects to the county for funding consideration. 

Lee Kellenberger
Lee Kellenberger

Planning for Change

Johnson County’s new approach to storm water management requires a degree of change that is difficult to implement, from a logistical and human acceptance standpoint. Many active stakeholders are involved beyond the professionals working within the program at the county level, but also those in the municipalities that use the program, in downstream municipalities and regulatory agencies, and those who reside in the county. A key step towards overcoming this difficulty is robust implementation. 

Through this process, the SMP also found that while formal, long-range strategic plans are commonplace among for-profit and corporate organizations, creating them does not appear to be a commonplace activity for public storm water entities. Strategic planning can take time, needs political backing and may require costs for outside assistance. And simply: change is hard. Organizational inertia can be a difficult obstacle. This can be true for public entities or governments, where it can be easier to stick to what has worked. 

Nonetheless, Johnson County’s experience represents a compelling example of why and how strategic planning can reap benefits for storm water organizations and their stakeholders. Many of the planning drivers for Johnson County likely are the same for other programs such as an evolving “state of practice,” a need to assess the program value provided to stakeholders and an evaluation of the efficient delivery of limited funds. 

While the outcomes and strategies in the strategic plan may be unique to Johnson County, the process applied in this effort was not. Organizations and departments within local governments need to take a critical look at their systems, strategies and structures, to evolve and meet the needs of their stakeholders now and in the future.

Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith


About the author

Heather Schmidt is water quality specialist for Johnson County Public Works. Lee Kellenberger is program manager for the Johnson County Stormwater Management Program. Andrew Smith is national stormwater practice lead for Black & Veatch Corp. Schmidt can be reached at [email protected]