Expert Advice for MS4 Construction and Post-construction Program Improvement

Entities regulated as municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) vary greatly in their progress on construction and post-construction program implementation.  According to Heather Buck, Resource Planner for Christopher B. Burke Engineering (CBBEL), many are still struggling with how to improve on what they are currently doing to meet all the Rule 13 requirements.

Recently, Buck taught an eight-hour workshop on the “Key Elements for Effective MS4 Construction and Post-Construction Programs” at the International Erosion Control Association (IECA) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, she wants to share some of the information she offered through her workshop to MS4s closer to home by addressing some of the most common questions they have about their construction and post construction programs.

Buck said most of the questions she gets from MS4s about their construction and post-construction programs come in one of four flavors:

1. Are they meeting all the Rule 13 requirements?
2. How do their programs compare with those of other MS4s?
3. How can they improve their construction and post-construction programs?
4. How can they make their program more consistent with other MS4s?

How to assess whether your program is meeting requirements

Most MS4s now have construction and post-construction programs in place. But according to Buck, they’re often not really sure if their programs meet all the Rule 13 requirements. In order to assess how comprehensive their programs are, Buck offered this advice, “I tell them to print off a copy of Rule 13 – that’s the backbone of their program. The MS4 coordinator and others involved in implementing the program need to know the rule – they need to flag it, highlight it, and study it so that they understand the language.”

How to benchmark your program

Buck said MS4s are always interested in benchmarking their programs with other MS4s in the state. Unfortunately, this can be difficult because construction and post-construction programs can vary significantly from one MS4 to another, and there isn’t any one place to find out what they are all doing.  Buck said there are a lot of resources available to help MS4s benchmark their programs:

  • Look at other MS4 websites. According to Buck, some MS4s will put their construction ordinances and technical standards on their website.
  • Turn to established groups such as the White River Alliance, the Northwest Indiana Storm Water Advisory Group (NISWAG), the Southern Indiana Stormwater Advisory Committee (SWAC), and the Indiana Association of Floodplain and Stormwater Managers (INAFSM). Buck noted that many of these types of groups hold workshops and have subcommittees that offer opportunities to learn about what other MS4s are doing with their construction and post-construction programs.
  • Go to conferences. Buck said conferences offer another opportunity to see what other MS4s are doing. And, if the Indiana Department of Environmental Management is going to be there speaking to the regulation, MS4s can get important information straight from the regulator.
  • Use the MS4 Program Evaluation Guidance from the U.S. EPA. This guidance was specifically written to teach state regulators how to conduct audits of MS4 programs. Buck recommends MS4s print out the guidance and use it to do their own assessments to see how their programs compare to national standards.
  • Conduct a third party mock-audit. Buck said sometimes MS4 staff are too close to their own programs to question their assumptions. Having a neighboring MS4 or a consultant conduct a mock-audit offers an opportunity to enhance their program and find efficiencies.

Consultants can also help an MS4 find out how its programs measure up. “We work with a lot of clients that have been through an audit, so we know what people are struggling with.” Buck said that by combining this client knowledge with what they learn from local and national conferences they attend and any new information they get from U.S. EPA regarding the regulation, consultants like CBBEL can provide a good assessment of how an MS4’s programs compare to others. She said they can also offer a lot of new ideas for improvement.

Program improvement doesn’t have to happen all at once

Buck said many MS4s want to make improvements to their programs but don’t know where to start. She added that it’s easy to get discouraged, “In the world of MS4s, municipal staff are often so busy trying to keep up with everything they have to do that they can get overwhelmed, especially if they’re looking at other programs that are much farther along than theirs.” But, she said, there are several “baby steps” an MS4 can take to get started and which will offer significant returns in the short term.

Make your programs visual with organizational charts and process flows

Buck said organizational charts along with process checklists and flow charts are enormously helpful because they map out the program visually making it easier for everyone to follow.

Buck suggested you start with three main organizational charts – one for the MS4 as a whole, one for the construction program, and another for the post-construction program. She said each chart should include everyone involved throughout the entire process. “For a construction program,” she said, “this would be everyone from who receives the construction plans, who addresses phone calls, who reviews the plan, who meets with everyone at the preconstruction meeting, and who does inspections.” Buck noted that in some cases, these will all be the same person, in other cases it could be many different people. “Sometimes, everyone involved works out of the same department. But, it could be various staff in different departments might be involved in some part of the process, she said, adding that the more complex the process is, the more an organizational chart will help.

Once an MS4 has developed its organizational charts, they’re ready to take the next step of documenting their processes. These processes should include how complaints and questions are handled and how construction plans are reviewed and approved. Each process checklist should include the names and positions of those responsible for each step and the associated timelines.

According to Buck, organizational charts and process flows provide several benefits:

  • They help everyone involved understand the process and their role in it
  • They make it easier to explain the process to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management when during an audit
  • They help the people answering the phones to direct people calling with questions or problems to the right person
  • They help the MS4 provide better and more consistent guidance to developers

Buck said documenting the organizational structure and programmatic process of an MS4 also provides an internal system of checks and balances. “When everyone knows the process – who’s doing what and what’s supposed to happen next,” Buck said, “it’s much harder for things to fall through the cracks.”

Take a fresh look at your educational materials

Buck also recommends that MS4s evaluate how they are educating their own staff as well as developers about the regulations. She said, “It’s one thing to have education materials, but are they right for everyone?”

Buck said it’s important that each piece of educational content should have the right message for the right audience. “For example,” she said, “administrative staff need to understand the general program concepts and how the municipality deals with construction. But, they don’t need to know how to complete the construction. Likewise, the person who accepts the plans at the front desk should know there is a program to control erosion and sedimentation at construction sites, that there are requirements such as silt fence and construction entrances, and that the plans must be approved.  However, that person doesn’t necessarily need the kind of detailed knowledge that an installer would have. ” Buck added that the delivery method has to be right, too. “Installers need to see good examples and bad examples,” she said, “But, they don’t want to watch a 45-minute video – they want to see these things in the field.”

It’s also good to look at the language in your educational materials. Buck said, “If I’m making a brochure about what I want people to do in our watersheds, I’m going to give it to my grandma. If she doesn’t understand it, then I may need to look at the words I’m using.” Buck said the language needs to fit the audience. “We tend to use our own jargon,” she said, “when we’re really just trying to teach people how to do practices.”

Tips for making your program more consistent with others

Buck said that she often hears from MS4s that developers struggle with rules that differ from county to county, and sometimes from one municipality to another making it difficult to stay in compliance. She offers the following tips for MS4 interested in achieving more consistency for better compliance.

Many MS4s have formed formal partnerships that help to ensure greater consistency across their boundaries. For those who don’t have a formal partnership, Buck suggested they can instead develop a working group to review their ordinances and technical standards. She said, “An informal working group can offer some of the same benefits as a more formal partnership in that it provides an opportunity to identify where different MS4 might be able to achieve more consistency in their ordinances and standards.”

“If you can’t do that,” Buck said, “Maybe you can get some upfront education for developers,” Buck said that preconstruction meetings are a good opportunity to educate developers on the differences in the requirements among the various MS4 entities they might be dealing with on a project. She said another way to make navigating varying requirements easier is to highlight the differences on your municipal website. This makes it easier for both the developers and the inspectors who have to ensure they’re meeting all the applicable requirements,” Buck said, adding” Better education means better compliance.”

Baby steps will take you farther than you think

Many MS4s are just beginning re-evaluate their construction and post-construction programs. Ultimately, these programs will require the development of new ordinances and technical standards to fully implement the regulations.

Buck recognizes that changing ordinances and revising technical standards is a big job. “You have to start somewhere,” she said, “I tell people to just start with those baby steps. The quickest, easiest thing you can do is to work with what you have right now – documenting your organizational structure and processes – and focus on education.

Buck reminds MS4s that Rule 13 requires they review their construction and post-construction programs every five years and to update them if needed. “If you take these steps now to get the process started,” Buck said, “you’ll be well prepared to tackle your ordinances and technical standards when your next review is due.”