Worth More than Money

Volunteerism and partnerships have a big role to play in keeping sewer systems clean and functional protecting vital watersheds

There’s a story in this issue about the small city of Independence, Minn., and the stormwater program that won a major honor — the 2010 Blue Star Award from Friends of the Mississippi River.

This city of about 3,700 in an urbanizing area has limited infrastructure and perhaps even more limited funds, but it manages to do things in stormwater pollution prevention, standards and practices, and planning and preservation that rival the efforts of much larger and better-funded communities.

One key to the city’s success, observes city administrator Toni Hirsch, is partnerships with area lake associations. It’s an ingredient found in many of the best stormwater programs throughout the country: Community outreach and collaboration. Nonpoint source pollution is by definition diverse in its kinds and origins, and it takes more than just a city, town or village government to tackle it.


Austere times

But the power of outreach goes beyond stormwater. Many communities with the best-functioning water and sewer systems have extensive education and volunteerism programs. Witness those that get aggressive with education programs aimed at curtailing fats, oils and grease (FOG) in sewer systems.

While originated and directed by municipal staff, these programs typically rely on outreach, whether directly through the public, indirectly through school systems, or cooperatively through local environmental organizations.

It’s worth noting the success of these programs in a time when resources for sewer and water operations and maintenance are scarce. Are volunteers, in particular community groups with vested interests, at least as valuable as money in austere times?

Perhaps in such times it’s easier to appeal to public-spirited citizens: Here’s a way you can help keep the community safe and clean without our having to raise your taxes or increase your user rates.


No panacea

Of course, I have not been one to advocate cutbacks in infrastructure services in the name of holding the line on costs. This magazine has been in favor of sewer and water rates that cover the full cost of operating the systems, including the cost of regular inspection, cleaning, repair and replacement.

There is not much of a role for volunteers when it comes to the specialized work of running cameras through sewer lines, jetting pipes, grouting pipe joints and spraying sealants onto the walls of manholes.

And yet there is much that volunteers can do to further the efforts of maintenance and repair crews without having to step into the street wearing reflective vests, hardhats and steel-toed boots. There’s room for education on all sorts of matters that end up affecting operations of sewer systems in particular.


Opting for adoption

On the stormwater side, programs like “Adopt a Stream” have been highly successful. Here, volunteers receive training and then regularly help monitor the condition of local waterways. That includes watching for sources of runoff pollution.

It’s not a huge stretch to imagine such a concept extending to identification of water system leaks, manhole deterioration, and illicit discharges of stormwater into the sanitary sewer system.

Is a program along the lines of “Adopt A Sewer” or “Adopt a Main” an utterly absurd concept? No community wants to recruit citizens in hopes they will become vigilantes, ratting out their neighbors for running sump pumps into their floor drains. But an army of volunteers who understand sewer and water systems, and are able to act as educators and as extra eyes and ears for city departments, could have real value.

Here’s a way for people who care deeply about the environment and public health and safety — and there are many such people — to take an active role. And here’s a way for citizens to do something about the cost of vital services besides complaining about high taxes and sewer and water bills.

Could the right group of volunteers, given the right training and mission, turn out to be worth as much as a boost in the budget? This isn’t to say that adequate budgets aren’t essential. It’s simply to say there may be a resource out there that could be quite valuable if properly engaged. F

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 877/953-3301; editor@mswmag.com.


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