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A path to improving national standards for stormwater practices

May 01, 2019

By Kathleen Allen

What to do when water quality suffers due to urban runoff-driven pollution

For the past several years, I’ve been working with the City of Indianapolis, Indiana, to improve the stormwater practices for the community. There are no national standards for stormwater post-construction treatment products. Some states like New Jersey and Washington have great programs, while others stick to the status quo. Rather than transferring best practices from community to community, each city runs under their own programs.

Honestly, the current practice of national stormwater programs is a problem for the industry. How so? It’s a barrier to innovation and competition. The piecemeal practice often feels unsystematic, which leads to programs becoming costly and time intensive.

There are no national standards for stormwater post-construction treatment products—some states like New Jersey and Washington have great programs, while others stick to the status quo.

The results of this current practice?

  • It limits the limited market entry for new technologies.
  • It creates local/regional monopolies.
  • It protects and encourages the status quo.
  • It produces a non-dynamic market.

The nature of the problem? Depends on your point of view

When it comes to defining the nature of our stormwater problem, everyone has a different opinion. The challenges change as we move from partner to partner. Some examples:

  • For the manufacturer, the product/practice approval process is a time-sensitive barrier. Testing under various protocols for different jurisdictions is expensive. It can be challenging and hinder innovation and competition.
  • For the consumer, the products and practices approved for use are limited to those who have paid to have their products tested and approved, often in many jurisdictions, which increases costs.
  • From the regulators point of view, the current practice produces uninformed product/practice consumers, which may lead to underperforming stormwater programs.

Bioretention along the Cultural Trail in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

The ultimate problem? Water quality. It continues to remain challenged in urban areas due to significant contributions from urban runoff-driven pollution. So, what can we do today to achieve better water quality tomorrow?

That’s where STEPP comes in.

The piecemeal practice often feels unsystematic, which leads to programs becoming costly and time intensive.

What is STEPP?

Since 2012, I have been part of a group that is trying to get a national standard for stormwater post-construction products and practices. Our goal? To reduce pollution in stormwater by proving to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), government regulators, state regulators, and municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) communities that a national standard is in the national interest. The status quo is no longer a bar to meet, but one we must strive to exceed.

Stormwater Testing and Evaluation for Products and Practices (STEPP) is a group that started with the aim of implementing a national standard for stormwater practices. We seek to establish a common performance testing protocol, evaluation, and verification process for stormwater best management practices (BMPs).

STEPP is an initiative housed within the Water Environment Federation (WEF) Stormwater Institute (SWI). The areas of focus of the SWI are:

  • Watershed scale
  • Governance
  • Assets and resources
  • Funding
  • Engage the community
  • Innovation and best practices

STEPP is associated with the innovation and best practices area of focus. 

STEPPing into the future

Several programs have previously been set up around the country, with many of them not currently active. The two most active and widely accepted programs across the country?

  • The Washington Technology Assessment Protocol-Ecology (TAPE)
  • The New Jersey Corporation for Advanced Technology (NJCAT)/New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) programs. 

Several programs have been set up around the country, but many of them not currently used.

Those programs worked so well for the communities they serve that STEPP is trying to implement them in cities across the country. That’s why I’ve been working so closely with Indianapolis, helping them transition from their original program to follow NJCAT’s program. And, if we can further prove it works there, we’ll take it around the rest of the US.

At the end of the day, we at STEPP want to see a nationwide reduction in pollution to stormwater. We want to establish an American Society for Testing Materials standard. We want to instruct MS4 program managers and government regulators how to do it in their own communities. We want to provide them with a list of products that have been tested and proven. We need a national standard—not to meet the status quo but to crush it.

To learn more about STEPP and the work I’m doing with the City of Indianapolis, come to my seminar at the Ohio Stormwater Conference in Sharonville, Ohio. I will be speaking at 4:30 pm on May 10.

  • Kathleen Allen

    A landscape architect, Kathleen specializes in compliance and project management for stormwater systems. She’s particularly focused on municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4) and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

    Contact Kathleen
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