Great, you have a stormwater utility! Now, what?

Most stormwater system managers will agree their job is a strange combination of a firefighter and a juggler. They are a firefighter, in that each day can bring an emergency that consumes time and resources; and a juggler, in that they must manage a host of challenges and competing priorities with a limited budget.

Following a six-step, best-in-class process can result in a well-organized stormwater program that addresses the greatest needs of your community at the lowest life cycle costs. These steps include 1) Prioritizing, 2) Determining a reasonable Level of Service (LOS), 3) Developing an Asset Management Program, 4) Integrating with the water & sewer utilities, where possible, 5) Communicating and consulting with stakeholders, and 6) Measuring program success.


1. Prioritize

Nobody has unlimited time or resources, and everyone knows if everything is a priority, then really nothing is a priority.

The first step is to ask, “How do we prioritize which stormwater problems to address first, and what criteria should we use?” Answering this question will help you prioritize funding for projects within your limited available budget and track challenges that need to be addressed immediately and down the line.

Each utility will prioritize issues differently depending on its unique situation. Existing infrastructure, community values, and climate conditions can impact the way a utility weighs its challenges. A universal truth, however, is that a utility should begin to prioritize based on defendable criteria, like public safety concerns, frequency of the problem, shared responsibilities, and water quality benefits. The table (at right) lists frequently-used prioritization criteria:

It is often helpful to apply a weighting factor to the criteria, and score each against a degree of impact multiplier. For example, a criterion like public safety concerns with a high weighting factor of 5 is multiplied by an anticipated degree of impact on a scale of zero (representing none) to 4 (representing extreme) to come up with a total score for the criteria. That score, and the score of all other criteria, allows managers to mathematically rank a range of priorities to guide planning and budgeting to fix the highest priority stormwater problems first.

Engaging with community stakeholders and City Council from the start is essential to developing and implementing a successful program. Going beyond staff to solicit the priorities of businesses, residents, and the City Council ensures the decisions made about the stormwater problems to fix and the necessary funding rates already have key stakeholder input baked in. This will help you obtain Council and community support that will make developing the program a much smoother process as you move into discussions about sharing responsibilities, budgeting, zoning, and policy.


2. Level of service

Now that priorities have been identified, the next question a utility should ask is “What should our community’s stormwater level of service be?

Defining the utility’s level of service (LOS) will help clarify responsibilities; better understand budget needs and constraints; and inform the asset management program. Establishing a defendable LOS requires obtaining buy-in from policymakers, the community, and those who operate it. Here are a few steps to establish a defendable LOS:

  1. LOS peer review – Conduct a peer review that includes national and international examples that can be applied to your system. This review will inform discussions about pipe sizing, costs, storm sizes for level of protection from basement backups and surface flooding, water quality design criteria, and overall LOS priorities. For example, can or should we protect against flooding in a 10-year storm? 100-year storm? What happens if a larger storm occurs and who is responsible for any damage? This process will aid discussions with stakeholders and provide a defendable and peer-based foundation for LOS recommendations.
  2. Develop current LOS and range of alternatives for increasing LOS – This step provides additional insight into engineering and costs associated with each LOS option presented. To begin, perform an analysis of the stormwater system to better understand its current state, and run a series of real and modeled storms to identify system capabilities and limits. Understanding the current limitations, needs, and associated costs of the system to increase the LOS are critical data points to determine your LOS.
  3. Understand how an increased stormwater management LOS impacts overflow reduction levels (if applicable) – There is often a relationship between LOS and sewer system overflows. A stormwater LOS recommendation should use an integrated approach that identifies projects that can achieve multiple regulatory and community benefits at the lowest cost. For example, what if a stormwater flooding reduction project also reduced sewer system overflows and improved in-stream water quality?
  4. Explore responsibility-sharing and regional collaboration for stormwater service delivery – There are so many different components to a stormwater system, and each must be identified and addressed. When establishing a LOS, it is essential to identify which entity is responsible for taking care of each component. Responsibility sharing can help take stress off the utility, share in the costs, and create a highly functioning system that meets stakeholders’ expectations.
  5. Update building code, regulation, policy, and ordinances – Once a LOS is established, it needs to be implemented. This step identifies what updates need to be made and who across the community can share in the costs for the recommended LOS to be met, instead of all the costs being the ratepayers’ burden. Will updated building codes help reduce flooding, basement backups and/or overflows? What regulations are making it difficult to maintain or increase the LOS? Are there policies and ordinances that could be updated to help make the LOS more attainable? This final step also requires that stakeholders have bought into the LOS recommendation.
  6. Engage the impacted residents, businesses, and nonprofits in this conversation. Bring them together to ask about expectations and trade-offs. The same questions you seek to answer in your peer review can also be asked of your customers. This final step helps build stakeholder buy-in to the LOS recommendation.


3. Create a stormwater asset management program

Now that priorities and a LOS have been identified and agreed upon, a stormwater asset management program is needed to help implement the recommendations made in steps one and two. Successful stormwater asset management programs often share the following six foundational elements.

  1. Identify Asset Management Structure and Governance Team – From procurement to engineering, a stormwater system impacts nearly every team in a governance structure, so it is critical to identify the asset management responsibilities of each team or department and who should be involved in the decision-making. This step helps centralize goals and ensure everyone is working together to keep the program moving forward with an eye toward efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
  2. Enshrine LOS and Performance Metrics – You can’t manage it if you can’t measure it. A successful asset management program will collect and measure the necessary data to determine the stormwater system’s performance, and balance and mitigate risk through key performance indicators.
  3. Asset Inventory and Information Tracking – A complete inventory of assets and resources is critical to effective system management. While taking inventory of the system assets, the utility should ask itself what it owns, record the condition the assets are in, and what data is required to make well-informed decisions, increase efficiency, and reduce capital and O&M costs.
  4. Prioritize Operations and Maintenance and Capital Investments – This step helps prioritize where maintenance and capital investment should be focused by weighing the likelihood of an asset’s failure with the consequence of its failure. Similar to the exercise described above to get a numerical score to identify priorities, a utility can use a similar approach to prioritize asset maintenance or replacement.
  5. Operation & Maintenance Logic and Strategy to Monitor Risk and Life Cycle – Ongoing cleaning and replacement have two very different capital and operations costs and staff labor allocations. Establishing an automated system to determine how often to maintain versus fix the assets and when a larger capital project versus a repair project is needed will help maintain an efficient and cost-effective program. This approach efficiently spends capital and operations costs to minimize risk and maximize asset life. This decision strategy will also help make choices and costs defendable to internal and external stakeholders.
  6. Program Health Process to Ensure Integrity – The last step is putting monitoring processes and procedures in place, so managers and staff are alerted when an asset issue occurs. These processes also include feedback channels to measure customer service and satisfaction.


4. Integration

Where possible, integrating the stormwater, water, and sanitary sewer asset management programs will make managing assets easier because they are so closely connected. To help ensure the stormwater asset management program works seamlessly with an existing sanitary sewer or water program, well-run utilities integrate data, internal communications, condition assessments, and repair and renewal work.

Maintenance crews provide an example of how this integration works. If a crew is going to assess the condition or clean sanitary pipes, it may be useful to also perform the condition assessment and/or cleaning of nearby stormwater pipes in need, so crews aren’t remobilized to maintain the two systems. For this to happen, data and decision logic need to be kept for both systems so the utility can track and schedule where condition assessment, cleaning, or repairs are needed for both the stormwater, sanitary sewer, and/or water systems. Internal communication and training need to take place, so the crew mobilized knows how to maintain and repair both systems and respond to any questions from the public, if they arise while in the field.

In addition to integrating data, decision logic, and tracking methods, key performance indicators (KPIs) can be integrated to help track the performance of assets consistently to inform cost-effective and defendable future system decisions. Your KPIs may look like the following example:

  • KPIs Per Crew and Total
    • Cost reports
      • $/LF for CCTV
      • $/LF for Cleaning
      • $/Str. For CB cleaning, MH/CB inspections
      • $/LF for repairs or rehabilitation
    • Production reports
      • CCTV Footage Reports by type of work, by crew(s)
      • Cleaning of pipes and structures
      • LID/GI maintenance per quarter, per year
      • MH inspections
    • Staff Utilization reports
  • Pounds of pollutants removed per year
  • Number of SW problems addressed per year


5. Communication and engagement

In addition to integrating with other systems, the program needs to successfully integrate into the community, too. Proactive communication and public engagement will ensure the program is understood and well-received, which will make implementation a smoother and more positive process. Here are a few tools to consider for public engagement:

  • Stakeholder Input – Did you give impacted customers a chance to weigh in on the priorities and level of service? Ensure they feel heard by providing opportunities for them to hear about the program and weigh in. This may be through one-on-one or small group meetings, or an open house. We discourage you from hosting a town hall-type large meeting, though, as that makes it hard for all voices to be heard and typically does not result in real understanding.
  • Customized Care Responses – Make sure your team knows how to respond to customers appropriately. Your integrated approach should help staff better understand who is responsible for responding to issues like flooding or standing water and how to communicate that to the customer.
  • Print and Digital Communication – You’ll need a variety of materials to answer the questions you’ll receive. Materials should answer questions like “Who’s responsible for overland flooding,” “How will this program benefit the community and impact me,” and “Why do we have a stormwater asset management program.” This can be done in a variety of formats like FAQs, mailers, PowerPoint presentations, videos, social media posts, newsletter articles, and emails.


6. Measure the program’s success

Congratulations! Following the above steps helped you create a well-run, best-in-class stormwater management program. Here are the program outcomes you should look for when assessing the program’s success.

The program:

  • Clearly identifies the location and condition of all stormwater assets
  • Prioritizes the problems using defendable criteria for maintenance and capital investments
  • Aligns condition assessments and capital improvements with master plans for LOS
  • Supports completion of systemwide master plans
  • Coordinates with existing asset management practices for water and sewer assets
  • Includes automated decision logic based on asset condition to determine next actions and address the highest risk assets
  • Measures KPIs and uses them through feedback loops and lessons learned to increase efficiencies and reduce overall costs
  • Defines projects for rehab/replacement by highest need/risk and value
  • Involves internal and external customers and stakeholders early and often in the utility development process so they are well-informed and understand where and why stormwater investments are being made.

While this approach may seem daunting, managers must consider this an investment in a better future. In this better future, you’ll be a more effective stormwater utility manager who keeps the firefighting helmet in reserve for emergencies, and saves the juggling for your kid’s birthday party.