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Have you heard of WOTUS?

How a casual lunch created a national dialogue

It all started with a summer lunch in downtown St Paul, Minnesota. Officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were in town for a meeting of the agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) Protecting America’s Water Workgroup. The topic of the meeting was the national rulemaking by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clarify the definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) in the 1972 Clean Water Act. One of the first speakers at the meeting was Gina McCarthy, the EPA Administrator.

The definition of which waters are considered WOTUS is fundamental to almost every jurisdictional question related to federal regulation under the Clean Water Act. It affects everything from wetland permitting under the Corps to EPA’s regulation of water quality under all the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting programs.

During the meeting, I spoke about concerns of possible negative effects of the new rule on cities that are regulated under the NPDES Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) stormwater permitting program. There are more than 6,000 MS4-permitted cities in the United States and a large number of other types of MS4 permittees, such as departments of transportation and counties. Taken together, these MS4 permittees own and operate millions of Stormwater Control Measures (SCMs) and Best Management Practices (BMPs). Without clarity and exclusion language covering those, the rule could make the work of these MS4 permittees much more difficult. MS4 permittees would have to be concerned about the WOTUS jurisdictional status of their SCMs and BMPs and this would complicate their operations, maintenance, and other decisions.

After the meeting, a few of my Minnesota colleagues and I joined two of the EPA staff for lunch. One idea that came up during our conversation was holding a national webinar on the rule, specifically for urban stormwater professionals. Everyone agreed it was a great idea, so over the next few months, I worked to put the logistics together. The Water Environment Federation (WEF) was willing to host the webinar. They had all the software and infrastructure. Together with WEF staff,  I helped  to ensure EPA participation, as their perspective was essential.

But, of course, not everything came together quite as easily as we anticipated. EPA wasn’t able to confirm until just a week before the scheduled date of the webinar, so with very short notice, we spread the word through every communication channel WEF and I knew of. In addition to EPA and me, we lined up speakers from the California Stormwater Quality Association, the Alabama DOT, and LGAC. One day before the event, all  the speakers had a brief training session on the WEF webinar software and just a half an hour before the webinar, we finalized all of organization details.

With all the players in place, our webinar presentations and Q&A went very smoothly. We had 1,322 registered sites in advance and 972 sites on-line during the webinar – well beyond everyone’s expectations. In fact, aside from their webinar on Ebola held two days earlier, this was the highest participation numbers for any WEF webinar.

A single conversation over a summer lunch led to a significant national program on an important topic. Working with partners like WEF, EPA, and the LGAC was essential to presenting an effective and informative webinar. We needed a lot of patience and persistence, but it ultimately paid off. I was proud to contribute to this important dialogue within our community of urban stormwater professionals. You can still view the webinar on the WEF website.

Since the webinar, I have also written and submitted formal comments on the rule for the Minnesota Cities Stormwater Coalition (click here to read them).

If you have any questions about the WOTUS rulemaking or the process behind a national webinar like this, please reach out so we can continue to educate others about important water issues like these.

Randy Neprash is a project manager in our St. Paul, MN office. You can reach him at 651-604-4703 or randy.neprash@stantec.com.

In fact, aside from their webinar on Ebola held two days earlier, this was the highest participation numbers for any WEF webinar.

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