Stormwater Management Basics for Water Utilities

Stormwater Management Basics for Water Utilities
By educating system users, utilities can quash many stormwater problems at their source.

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Stormwater management has many critical goals: protect local bodies of water, eliminate soil erosion and damage to structures, return as much water as possible to the aquifer, and eliminate harmful runoff contaminants. 

Ellen Gilinsky, senior advisor for the U.S. EPA Office of Water, explains the task of stormwater management in simple terms: “Whether you’re in an urban environment, or an agricultural environment, you need to realize that stormwater runoff isn’t just water — there’s everything from hydrocarbons to metals in that mix, and you just can’t allow that stuff to reach local streams, rivers and lakes. Stormwater is pervasive, so we all need to know how to deal with it.” 

Combined sewer systems used to be the norm, sending stormwater to the same treatment plants that process sewage. Some 800 municipalities in the U.S. still operate these systems, serving 40 million people. But combined sewers are prone to backups and overflows during heavy rain events. Overflows can dump significant pollution into the environment, and are a threat to public health. 

Even the newest separate systems have to contend with many of the same issues, not the least of which is the cocktail of pollutants contained in typical runoff. Climate-driven increases in rainfall in many areas only exacerbate the problem. The ideal strategy involves educating your community, and improving existing stormwater infrastructure. 

Education: Prevent stormwater pollution by system users 

Education is by far the most cost-effective solution to stormwater management. By educating your system users, you can quash many stormwater problems at their source. Many people are unaware of the issues that can arise from improper disposal of waste, or careless landscaping and runoff control. Further, if the customers understand where their dollars are going, they’re more likely to support innovative stormwater management solutions. 

“The role of education is huge and cannot be overemphasized,” Gilinsky says. “Stormwater is everywhere, and everyone can contribute. Small efforts by lots of people can really help stormwater management programs succeed. And much of what they can do is low- or no-cost. Simple things, like properly disposing of pet waste, or diverting a downspout into a rain barrel to use for watering your garden, can have a real impact.” 

Examples of public education strategies include:

  • Outreach to area schools with guest lectures and demonstrations
  • Outreach through community events with hands-on activities
  • User-friendly website with downloadable resources and Q&A
  • Billing inserts addressing specific issues
  • Hazardous materials and expired prescription drug drop-offs
  • Special incentive programs, like EPA’s Campus RainWorks Challenge 

When people understand the system that serves them, and appreciate the crucial nature of these services, they’ll be more likely to work with you — whether by adapting best practices, supporting bonds, engaging with city hall, or tolerating rate increases. 

Green Infrastructure: Using natural processes to treat stormwater 

Green infrastructure is where a lot of the action is these days. Green infrastructure requires some upfront costs, but pays off big time later. It can reduce the stormwater runoff that needs to be managed down the line, and also clean the water of many harmful pollutants. 

Some examples of green infrastructure already in widespread use include:

  • Swales and detention basins for groundwater recharge
  • Green roofs, rain gardens, rain barrels
  • Permeable surfacing wherever possible
  • No-till agricultural methods

“People might not know the term green infrastructure, but I think they can understand what it is, if you tell them, because they see it working every day,” Gilinsky notes. “Swales with attractive vegetation, help with the heat island effect, improvement of air quality, less flooding — people notice these things.” 

Gray Infrastructure: maintain, upgrade, expand 

Gray infrastructure is the mechanical, electrical and hydrologic hardware used to process stormwater. Even with green infrastructure in place, gray infrastructure must be able to process whatever excess runoff remains. Whether you enjoy a state-of-the-art modern system, or are stuck with an older combined sewer system, there are still many options to explore. 

“Cities with combined sewers are having a hard time meeting EPA’s mandates,” Gilinsky says. “There are some pretty old pipes still in service out there. Here again, green infrastructure can reduce the load. But you’re still going to have those rain events that tax your capacity. Many cities with combined sewers are using containment cisterns to hold that runoff for later processing, when the existing system can handle it.” 

Successful measures for improving existing infrastructure include:

  • Maintenance to ensure existing systems operate at peak efficiency
  • System upgrades where possible to improve efficiency or capacity
  • Separation plants to divide the sewage and stormwater flows
  • Storage systems to hold overflow for later processing 

Replacing an existing system is cost-prohibitive in today’s economy. Still, there’s been a lot of innovation in this area for those municipalities that want to get the most out of whatever system they have. For example, the New Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority has a 10-year master plan to repair 25,000 feet of sewer lines and invest $550,000 to remove private owned sewers from homes in several neighborhoods with direct sewer connections. Check out a full story on the authority at 

Do what works 

Every system is unique, with its own site-specific challenges. And, of course, there are always department budgets to contend with. Yet even on a shoestring there are effective tactics to employ. 

All new systems keep stormwater and sewage separate. Starting with the Clean Water Act of 1972, following increasingly tighter EPA regulations since then, and with compliance mandated by Congress in 2000, existing combined sewer systems are now under close scrutiny. State and local authorities have generally not allowed construction of combined sewers since the mid-20th century. Many of those that remain are facing consent orders with increasing NPDES permit requirements. 

“We’re talking about this issue all over the country, and it’s an important dialogue,” Gilinsky says. “There’s big ticket items municipalities can address, but there’s also all those small things concerned citizens can do. And we all need to do whatever we can to take care of our water.” 


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