Clean Water on TAPP

The City of Tallahassee combines innovative facilities with public education to help keep area lakes clear of runoff pollution

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John Cox approaches stormwater problems the same way they were created: little by little. As grant manager for the Think About Personal Pollution (TAPP) campaign in the city of Tallahassee (Fla.) Stormwater Management Group, Cox focuses on the low-hanging fruit, while leading his team in efforts ranging from public awareness programs to action-oriented projects that homeowners embrace with enthusiasm.


Cox is part of a progressive program in a community where residents are concerned about stormwater quality and how it affects area lakes. The city was first in the state to adopt a stormwater utility or user-fee approach to stormwater management.


The procedures and processes the stormwater group developed, such as pioneering the equivalent residential units (ERU) concept, became a template now promoted by the U.S. EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Over the last decade, the community has continued to support the program through one of the highest stormwater fees in the state.


The comprehensive program includes water-quality and flood-control projects. The TAPP campaign introduced an outreach component, educating homeowners on how small changes in their habits and yard-care practices can reduce water pollution. In 2008, the Florida Stormwater Association honored Tallahassee with its Outstanding Achievement Award.


Turn on the TAPP

In 2003, the Ochlockonee River, Soil, and Water Conservation District began the TAPP program as a public-private partnership. Three years later, management responsibility shifted to the city. The TAPP team combined outreach with an award-winning media campaign of 30-second public service announcements about nonpoint personal pollution.


“At the time, nobody was thinking about how using too much fertilizer affects water quality, or how soil erosion from lawns and construction sites clogs waterways with silt,” says Cox. “The team’s first goal was to make citizens aware of the most common personal pollution sources.”


The campaign adopted the motto: “Every drop you lose, nature finds.” It urged residents to slow the flow by using simple methods to reduce pollution. In time, public service announcements, publications such as the TAPP Guide to a Water-Friendly Yard, and other outreach manuals became part of the Florida’s stormwater toolbox.


One of the most successful spots, using the TAPP duck, aired all over the state. As a cha-cha plays, a yellow rubber duck (representing pollution) floats in runoff down a driveway. He is joined by more and more ducks as they bob down a street. An aerial shot of the neighborhood then shows all the streets bright yellow with ducks.


Close collaboration

The public service announcements are a collaboration between the stormwater management group and the TAPP team. From 2004 to 2007, the campaign focused on creating an awareness of the problem. In 2008, more action-oriented messages encouraged changes in people’s habits to help protect water quality in the area’s three major lakes, whose watersheds comprise most of Tallahassee.


“Our latest announcement reminds pet owners to clean up after their dogs,” says Cox. “That’s a difficult topic to put on film without offending someone’s sensibilities, so we went with suggestive imagery.”


The 30-second clip shows a man dispensing chocolate soft-serve ice cream, a potter forming a cone of brown clay, a chef grinding meat into sausage casings, a wife heaping chocolate whipping cream on cake, and a SWAT team member smearing brown camouflage grease on his face. The message to pick up the poop is delivered over the aria “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto.


“We know people are watching because the spots generate a lot of heat,” says Cox. “Within 24 hours after airing this one, we began receiving positive and negative feedback. Our goal to get people talking was successful.”


Cox estimates that Tallahassee dogs generate 20 tons of excrement per day. “If one-half inch of rain delivers 10 percent of that waste to our storm drains, it increases our permitted bacterial level of 400 units per 100 ml threefold,” he says. “And this is only one source contributing coliforms. We have many others.”


Duck magnets

The city has 350 stormwater management facilities (detention ponds), operated and maintained by the Streets and Drainage Department. Most were built by private contractors, but all attract ducks and other wildlife.


To keep the water quality good despite the nutrient influx, stormwater staff members inject alum into storm sewers discharging into Lake Ella, a 12-acre stormwater facility in a 150-acre watershed. The alum flocculates suspended solids and nutrients such as phosphorus, sequestering them on the bottom of the lake.


When it rains, sensors in the storm sewers detect a rise in water levels, activating pumps that inject the alum. “Alum really enhances and quickens sedimentation,” says Cox. “Lake Ella was the first such stormwater facility built in Florida, and it remains our most popular lake. While it provides a significant amount of stormwater treatment, all visitors see is blue water.”


The stormwater group is considering upgrades to Weems Pond, a 14-acre lake on an 11,000-acre watershed, using the same technology. During rainstorms, water flows too quickly through the system, affecting treatment performance. “We’re going to install alum injection units and see how much improvement we get,” says Cox.


Lake Ella and Weems Pond are examples of picking the low-hanging fruit — facilities with characteristics that can be upgraded to enhance performance without acquiring land. Stormwater managers arrived at the concept after a detailed analysis projected a cost of $800 million to retrofit stormwater facilities in just 70 percent of the city’s 110 square miles. “We knew no one would adopt that idea,” says Cox.



The stormwater group’s most challenging retrofit is also one of the only regional stormwater treatment facilities in north Florida, and the only one in Tallahassee.


Florida State University (FSU), surrounded by the city, had very little land near its campus for an expansion. FSU officials offered to donate 20 acres on the campus periphery if the city would build the required stormwater facility. The stormwater group saw more low-hanging fruit.


“We built Lake Elberta to treat 400 acres,” says Cox. “About 200 acres are reserve capacity for new development.” The facility, now a park, also provides enhanced treatment for the heavily developed area upstream.


Much of the city’s conveyance system involves open drainage ditches dug primarily for mosquito control years ago. Besides cleaning and reshaping the ditches, swales, and major canals, the Streets and Drainage Department repairs damaged drainage structures, dredges and stabilizes outfall ditches and ponds, and controls weed and brush growth. Crews mow stormwater facilities at least twice a year and perform major maintenance as needed.


“We’re also one of few Florida cities to inspect stormwater facilities in new residential areas,” says Cox. “Public and private facilities require operation permits and must be inspected every three years.”


The ERU funds these activities. At $7.29, the fee brings in $1.7 million annually per dollar of rate charged. It is in its fourth year, and the rate will increase to $7.95 by October 2010. An ERU represents a single-family dwelling with an average 1,990 square feet of impervious area. Residential customers are charged one ERU per month.


Doing their part

The city uses the fees to fund capital improvement projects and its share of the TAPP grant program. Cox is quick to drive home the message to residents that the stormwater group can continue building costly facilities, but that a lower-cost alternative is for them to do their part by reducing the pollution load so fewer structures are needed.


One source of such pollution, and another key element in the TAPP campaign, is lawn fertilizer. Native clays are rich in phosphorus, and sheet erosion over denuded ground is the primary culprit for conveying that element to the lakes.


TAPP messages urge homeowners to test their soil before fertilizing, and to look for the zero P on bags of fertilizer if the soil has sufficient phosphorus. The city went one step further, adopting a fertilizer ordinance requiring commercial and institutional applicators to be licensed.


While the public service announcements in the media have the desired effect, Cox sees public attention shifting to the Internet. The TAPP Web site attracts 1,500 visitors a month, and half are interested in rain barrels and rain gardens. In response, upgrades are planned that will make the site more interactive and informative. “We’re also on Facebook, and some messages have found their way onto YouTube,” says Cox.


In spring 2011, the site will add Web automated human interaction from Wahi Media in Tallahassee. The video-based platform communicates TAPP messages by simulating human conversation. With each interaction, the program learns about the viewer, tailoring messages based on replies to questions. At the same time, it stores the responses in real time for the team to analyze.


Whether it’s a banner at sporting events, information booths at community activities, workshops, or flyers mailed in utility bills, Tallahassee residents are learning to reduce stormwater pollution loads bit by bit by Thinking About Personal Pollution.


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