An Initiative That Pays Twice

Volunteers help communities and utilities attend to a host of tasks they could never handle other­wise in a time when budgets are tight

This month’s stormwater feature reports on Hillsborough County and the army of volunteers that helps the stormwater management staff with cleanups, monitoring and resting programs, site restorations and more.

I was impressed by the sheer size of the county’s volunteer program and with the time the staff has invested to organize it. Here’s an initiative that pays twice — in the money the county saves by using volunteer help, and in the connections the government makes with its citizens. I know which one I think is worth more.

The scope and tight focus of the Hillsborough program strikes me as unique, but the county is far from alone in courting volunteers. Look at the Web site of almost any major city and you’ll find a volunteer program of some kind. Does your community have one? If not, are you missing something of great value?

Not everywhere

Of course, volunteers help some municipal functions more than others. You won’t find volunteers out in the streets exercising water valves, or peering at the monitors of pipe inspection systems, or next to combination trucks sucking debris out of catch basins. And yet, a number of water, sewer and stormwater departments find ways to put volunteers to work. Here are just a few examples:

The City of San Diego, Calif., uses Volunteer Canyon Watchers who walk through the city’s urban canyons and report real or suspected sewer spills to an emergency hotline.

The City of Bloomington, Ind., uses Storm Drain Chasers, who mark storm drains by gluing colorful plastic discs near the drains that say, “No Dumping — Drains to Stream.” (Many communities have similar programs.)

The City of Salem, Ore., welcomes volunteers to serve on watershed councils — independent groups that work on watershed improvements — and a Watershed Enhancement Team (W.E.T.), which offers a pledge program for businesses and residents who want to learn ways to reduce storm drain and solid waste pollution.

The City of Ports-mouth, Va., held a volunteer wetland-planting project around a newly built stormwater retention pond. More than 90 volunteers turned out.

The City of Virginia Beach, Va., recruits transportation aides to take vehicles to the city garage and car washes and to check vehicles at the beginning of each month, logging monthly mileage and observing and reporting visual evidence of service needed.

The City of Glendale, Ariz., Utilities Department currently accepts volunteers to work in water treatment and wastewater areas. (These positions are for students in water technologies programs at area community colleges.)

What can you imagine?

A large number of cities have volunteer programs. From the time I invested searching online, a fairly small minority include volunteer opportunities on the water, wastewater and stormwater sides. Maybe those departments should think a little more creatively and identify some of those “nice to do” things that never seem to fit into the annual budget. That’s where volunteers can play a role.

The country is changing and the population is getting older. People are retiring earlier and in better health than ever in history. Perhaps that means more people with not only the inclination but the time to give something back to the towns they call home.

If you haven’t thought of putting this natural and human resource to work, maybe now would be a good time to consider it. Most likely your community already has a volunteer office or coordinator. Maybe all you have to do is come up with a few tasks that volunteers can do competently and safely and then get them posted on the city Web site.

Who knows? You may find more helping hands than you ever thought possible. Just look at Hillsborough County.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 800/257-7222;


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