STORM: United Front

A Vermont county adopts a collaborative approach to change stormwater behaviors, and decision-makers are in it for the long haul

To educate people about stormwater pollution and influence their behaviors, officials in Chittenden County, Vt., took a unified, collaborative approach that includes a long-term commitment for creating change.

The program, launched in 2003, is making good strides, as evidenced by a 2006 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence in Education and Outreach. Yet officials representing towns throughout the county know there is more work to do and agreed to work together at least into 2013 — and possibly beyond.

“We’re seeing a lot of improvement in areas of our program, but any public behavior campaign requires a steady, consistent investment, and you need to keep at it year after year,” says Dan Senecal-Albrecht, senior planner with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. “If people understand how stormwater works and the issues involved, they’ll begin to understand that it’s necessary to address the problem for the long-term health of their community.”

Permit dictates action

The need for better understanding of stormwater pollution began to heat up in 2000, when the EPA authorized state implementation of the NPDES stormwater permitting program. The process calls for nine municipalities in the county, and others with municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4s) to comply with the Phase II Stormwater Rule.

The MS4s include Shelburne, South Burlington, Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, Milton, Essex Junction, Essex, and Williston, as well as the Burlington International Airport, the University of Vermont, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation. Many had stormwater initiatives underway, but more needed to be done.

The MS4s are all located near Lake Champlain, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States. The lake receives municipal effluent as well as runoff from farms and urban areas, and it all contributes to water quality problems. Nine other waterways in and around the MS4s are listed as impaired, primarily because of urban stormwater runoff.

As part of the Phase II Rule, Chittenden County needed to comply with six minimum measures, one of which is a public outreach and education initiative. With tight municipal budgets, compliance with that requirement dictated out-of-the-box thinking.

All together now

To maximize resources and minimize costs, the MS4s formed a collaborative regional organization, the Chittenden County Regional Stormwater Education Program (RSEP). In 2003, participating MS4s agreed to contribute $5,000 each per year for five years to finance the outreach campaign. The total annual investment is $60,000.

The Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission coordinates the RSEP. A steering committee of RSEP staff members oversees the campaign and the CCRPC. Other non-voting members include the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Champlain Water District. Additionally, the county formed a steering committee to oversee the campaign.

According to Senecal-Albrecht, the decision to create the RSEP made perfect sense. “There’s the realization that if each town does this individually, it would be hugely inefficient, and $5,000 wouldn’t go very far,” he says. “Like a lot of regional efforts, people do it when the benefits outweigh the costs.”

The county’s waterways cross municipal boundaries. That means any effort to change behaviors needs to follow suit. “We needed a message that covers the entire area and one that emphasizes the same behaviors,” Senecal-Albrecht says. “It does no good for one town to understand the issue and do cleanup while another remains uneducated.”

He says the issue affects everyone who lives and works in the county.

“We’re all in this together,” he says. “We also see the need for consistency.”

Hiring the pros

As one of its first decisions, the RSEP steering committee hired a marketing firm to develop and execute the annual campaigns. The discipline of marketing doesn’t normally fall under the purview of municipal engineers, wastewater plant operators and public works employees, Senecal-Albrecht observes.

“These people have their specific jobs, and they don’t want to be involved in designing ads, booking ads,” he says. “That’s why you hire marketing firms. They know how to bargain with the media, how to get maximum exposure, and things like that.”

Based on a survey of county residents, the marketing firm developed a multifaceted campaign using paid and unpaid media to educate the public about the effects of stormwater runoff and describing simple steps people can take to help. The ads focus on specific prevention tips related to pet waste, car washing, fertilizer and chemicals, and home construction erosion and debris.

Decision-makers also saw the need for a Web site ( Besides providing detailed information about runoff, the site describes common behaviors that cause water quality problems. It also includes an interactive map that allows visitors to view waterways in their town.

A popular item on the site is an animated feature, “What’s Happening in Stormville?” Users can “tour” a town and “view” four problem behaviors, then click on each one to see the negative effects. They can click further for more in-depth, scientific explanations.

“The Web site is an interesting and unique way to teach people, and especially kids, about the stormwater issue,” says Senecal-Albrecht. “I get calls every month from municipalities all over the country asking about it. I always send them a disk because any competent Web person can adapt it to their needs.”

The marketing campaign also includes ads on network and cable TV, on top radio stations, and in community newspapers. During the first five years, the RSEP also developed a five-minute introductory video on stormwater for use at meetings and organized a one-hour stormwater panel discussion broadcast on local public access channels.

The RSEP also partnered with Governor James Douglas’ Clean & Clear Action Plan and continues to partner with public schools to further its outreach. Essentially all of the communication tactics encourage people to visit the Web site to learn more.

Grounding in research

From the start, RSEP has grounded its marketing in research. Senecal-Albrecht says the research makes it possible to measure progress and justify expenditures. “Money is tight, and people really have to be careful about what they’re doing, especially when it’s a regional initiative,” he says. “People expect to spend money on services within their town, like the library and police department. But when it comes to spending money that goes out of town, there’s more emphasis on what they’re getting for the money.”

In 2003, RSEP used a survey to gauge stormwater knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. The results showed that most people will be more environmentally responsible if given simple ways to change their behavior, but that people did not perceive that they generate significant pollution from their everyday activities.

In the summer of 2008, another survey confirmed that the program made significant headway in several key areas. Of those surveyed:

• Nine of ten understand that stormwater runoff is not treated and that it picks up pollutants and carries them into waterways.

• Three of four understand that their personal actions and behaviors affect Lake Champlain.

• Three of four dispose of dog waste in the trash when walking their dogs, and slightly over half do so with dog waste from their yards.

• Nearly three of four know that washing cars at a commercial car wash or on the lawn reduces runoff pollution. Nearly three of four use a car wash or never wash their cars.

“We realize we’re doing pretty well on knowledge and awareness, which is nice, and that we’re doing really good on pet waste and car washing, but we’ve got a lot of work to do in areas, such as lawn care and fertilization,” says Senecal-Albrecht.

Half of those surveyed in summer 2008 use fertilizer, and four out of ten don’t know if the product they use contains phosphorous. Three-quarters have never had their soil tested to see whether they need to fertilize at all. Most fertilize in spring rather than fall; fall is the best time to fertilize.

Staying the course

Senecal-Albrecht says Chittenden County officials are pleased with the progress to date. However, there’s little doubt about the need to continue educating the public about stormwater issues.

“Overall we’re making progress, but at the same time, we need to be realistic,” he says. “Some of these things take time. If you think about it, decades ago people would throw trash out their car window on the roadway, but most wouldn’t even think of doing that today.”

The challenge with any public education campaign, he says, is to maintain a steady flow of information with clear and concise messages. “The public gets bombarded with a lot of information about behavior, whether it’s about global warming, or water quality issues, you name it,” he says. “A consistent message helps give credence to the behaviors you’re trying to get people to adopt.”

To keep up the momentum the RSEP has built, the MS4s have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to continue the program through March 2013.

“We see improvement in some of these things and we believe we’re part of the solution,” Senecal-Albrecht says. “The MS4s recognize that it takes time, but the MOU is proof that they see the benefits.”

Attacking all fronts

In addition to public education and outreach, the MS4s have worked toward goals associated with other NPDES minimum measures, which include public participation and involvement, illicit discharge detection and elimination, construction site runoff control, post-construction runoff control, and pollution prevention/good housekeeping.

MS4 representatives attend regular RSEP steering committee meetings to share ideas and approaches that work. The monthly meetings also include training sessions for public works employees and others involved in helping to control stormwater pollution.

With a unified approach and a commitment to changing harmful behaviors, county residents are making a difference. Senecal-Albrecht says the RSEP is a key part of the solution. “There are a lot of others out there creating visibility about stormwater,” he says. “But we’re the only ones with a targeted message that is focused on stormwater pollution. That’s our niche.”


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