It’s clear that stormwater projects are going to bring a deluge of jobs to counties and municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed at a time when recession-weary workers are looking for steady employment.
But it’s less clear that the people who want those jobs will have the skills to do them.
The new jobs include landscaping, installing rain barrels and rain gardens, engineering new storm drain outfalls and fixing old ones. But they will also include monitoring green-infrastructure projects to ensure they are reducing runoff; measuring the runoff that’s there; designing and maintaining computer apps that allow for easy data entry on project sites; and more jobs that have yet to be created.
Because of requirements in the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load that each state reduce its stormwater runoff, local government officials are looking to both create revenue streams that finance runoff-reduction problems and find workers to create the projects. States are budgeting millions of dollars for these projects.
Maryland required its 10 largest jurisdictions to assess a stormwater fee two years ago to pay for outfall improvements and green infrastructure to reduce stormwater’s bad effects on local waterways. Virginia passed new permit requirements for stormwater. Municipalities like Lynchburg are already creating stormwater utilities to tackle the problem. More states and cities will be moving in this direction under pressure from the regulations and the examples showing the work can be done.
Stormwater professionals in the region are grappling with how to train people for what is sure to be a steady stream of work. They are considering developing certification programs or professional associations that bring all the professionals working on stormwater under the same umbrella. Right now, the disciplines don’t necessarily cross over — construction and engineering overlap, for example, but they don’t have much to do with monitoring runoff or analyzing water quality.
“This is all fairly new,” said Tom Schueler, who runs the Chesapeake Stormwater Network. “The amount of contractors who know how to audit a property, design a rain garden and install it is pretty low.”
Schueler said his network is working on a certification program for those who focus on green infrastructure. It’s a challenge because many workers in the landscaping community don’t speak English, so Schueler started with online videos in Spanish. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay also developed a job-training program that prepares workers for mostly entry-level jobs through Howard County.
The job training is becoming increasingly important as federal regulators endorse green infrastructure — the term for practices that both beautify neighborhoods and mimic nature to capture runoff. Only three years ago, the EPA seemed tentative about green infrastructure. When the city of Lancaster embarked on a multimillion-dollar green infrastructure project to tackle its combined stormwater-sewage problems, not everyone at the agency endorsed it.
There was none of that doubt on May 13, as the EPA’s senior Chesapeake Bay advisor Jeff Corbin sat next to Lancaster Public Works Director Charlotte Katzenmoyer at a press conference praising the city’s approach and urging others to take on such projects.
“I wouldn’t say we are rethinking green infrastructure. We always thought it was the right thing to do,” Corbin said. “A lot of this, it’s what communities want. We do see this as being the new direction. It’s more cost-effective and it brings in multiple benefits.”
Initially, Katzenmoyer said the city struggled to find contractors for the ambitious work. In Lancaster, every city alley that needs to be repaved gets porous pavement when possible. The same goes for every parking lot, basketball and tennis court that needs to be resurfaced. Many of the regular city contractors did not know how to do the work, but they learned. Now, about half of them have experience on green projects.
“We’ve really grown our contractor pool,” Katzenmoyer said. “The more projects they implement, the more familiar they are with it. Now, we have contractors who are coming to us who want to do this work.”
In the District of Columbia, there is also a deep bench of contractors for green projects, said Rebecca Stack, a technical engineer for the District Department of the Environment. DC, she said, was an “early adapter,” having enacted stormwater regulations in 1987.
“We have a lot of choices. We have a lot of folks bidding on projects,” she said. The department keeps their audit function in-house, so it can take three months for a District homeowner to receive a visit from the department to go over their stormwater issues and possibly find solutions that reduce runoff. But, Stack said, they don’t want to contract out that function in order to keep quality control.
In smaller cities, finding qualified contractors can be more of a problem. But the biggest problem is finding money, said Jeff Wilkerson, the public works director for Martinsburg, WVA.
A major intersection in the town of 17,000 residents floods all the time, and the city needs to redesign it. Wilkerson wanted to add green infrastructure to the project to beautify it and help with the runoff, but that will cost $250,000. He applied for a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust but didn’t get it. He’s seeking more funding avenues and is trying to put the item to next year’s budget. But residents are clamoring for a fix now, he said, and most likely, they’ll get it without the added green benefits.
“Once we get a demonstration project in and people see what it can do, we’ll be able to take a little bit away from the paving budget (for these projects),” Wilkerson said. “We’re still educating the public. We talk to people about stormwater, and they have no idea.”
Amanda Bassow of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which disperses much of the federal money for green infrastructure projects, said they can only fund 25 percent of the proposals they receive — one reason they also had to reject Wilkerson when he applied two years ago. On technical assistance grants, the rate of funding is only 10 percent.
“We just don’t have the resources to fund the good work that needs to happen,” she said.
Ted Scott, who owns a 40-employee stormwater engineering and maintenance firm in Baltimore County, said the biggest problem isn’t finding trained employees or money for projects. The biggest problem, he said, is changing the culture of the low-bid. In construction projects, cities and counties often go with the lowest bidder. That may be OK on a house — it will have linoleum instead of tile, Formica instead of granite — but it won’t work on a green infrastructure project.
Scott said funders now understand that, and are not making as many demands now on how much items like design should cost. But customers don’t always understand, and they end up paying later — when the stormwater practice doesn’t deliver the promised benefits or when it fails altogether.
“The most important thing a customer can do is base bids on qualifications, not just price,” said Scott, who also chairs the board of Blue Water Baltimore. “It’s very unique and it demands qualified firms.”