by Ranger Kidwell-Ross
Obstacle or Opportunity?
Pollution in the nation's stormwater runoff has become an important environmental concern. A big question is the emerging role power sweeping may be able to assume in reducing the problem.
Because of the EPA's mandate to reduce pollutants in the runoff stream, stormwater management has become the municipal buzzword of the '90s. Initial plans focused on current conditions of the city runoff streams. Now the push toward developing Best Management Practices (BMPs) is taking place. The impact on commerce is twofold: The business community is being asked to develop stormwater management plans for its imperviously surfaced (paved/roofed) property, and tax assessments -- based upon square foot of impervious surface area -- are beginning to be levied.
These stormwater runoff fees, often called 'stormwater utilities,' are increasingly being imposed by municipalities in order to raise funds to address their stormwater cleanup efforts. Fees are currently most prevalent on the coasts, where increasing levels of pollution in bays and waterways are raising the most cause for concern, but expect them in your area soon. To show where this topic is headed and what it might mean for sweeping, this article focuses on current developments in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia.
Karl Stauty, owner of Commercial Power Sweeping & Services, Suffolk, VA, first alerted our office about stormwater assessments being imposed upon his clients. According to Stauty, five municipalities surrounding Chesapeake Bay have begun imposing runoff fees of about $.03 to $.04 per square foot of impervious surface area per year. This translates to up to $900 per month for some of his clients. The question he asked us to investigate is the likelihood of getting these stormwater assessment fees reduced or dropped by implementing a structured, professional program of sweeping.
It is generally undisputed that sweeping has a high value in removing total solids and, in areas where water treatment systems handle this type of runoff, that it reduces the strain on city water treatment systems. Where runoff goes into waterways, sweeping's value as a pollution control measure seems less clear cut. Although sweeping is listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a BMP in the reduction of pollutants in stormwater runoff, there is still no documented testing showing street sweeping to be effective in improving water quality. The probable reasons hinge upon two factors: Most cities currently don't sweep their streets often enough, and sweeping must be performed at a higher level of cleaning than the traditional 'cosmetic' approach to do a good job of removing the PM 10 'fines' that tend to be high in pollutants.
For example, some studies have shown that broom sweepers used on their own actually increase the pollutant load on the street. This is because they remove the heavy-debris top layer, exposing and disturbing the more polluted fine particles underneath. These small particles are then even more prone to wash into the storm system with the next rain. Even when municipal sweeping is done in the best fashion possible -- which recent studies show is by using a broom sweeper followed by an regenerative air machine -- it is not typically performed frequently enough to make a significant difference. Added to that are the facts that many cities still sweep around parked cars, hilly areas tend to create runoff in rains, etc. These facts raise serious questions about whether current sweeping methods are creating an effective BMP as defined by the EPA.
With stormwater assessments upon the business community, what we know about street sweeping methods and frequency now needs to be transferred to parking lots. With these new impact fees, the idea of sweeping specifically to reduce pollutants from parking areas and other paved business surfaces becomes economically important. Unlike with streets, parking areas are often swept several times per week, anyway. According to Roger Sutherland, vice president of the Oregon-based stormwater consulting firm Kurahashi and Associates, sweeping frequency makes a big difference.
"Our recent studies show the frequency needed to maximize sweeping's effectiveness for minimizing pollution in stormwater runoff is from one 'stormwater sweep' a week to one sweep every other week, depending upon the site. It's important the sweeping be done in a particular fashion, however, and with a sweeper designed to pick up fines. It must also be done methodically, and at a speed where the finer materials won't be left on the ground. That makes all the difference. With the exception, perhaps, of spring cleanup, parking areas typically don't have the packed-down litter problems that require a broom machine."
The question which arises from this line of reasoning is: If a particular method and frequency of sweeping can be performed such that it significantly reduces the pollutant load, could localities charged with implementing a stormwater management program feasibly offer credits for effective sweeping?
Edmund Panzer is director of the Public Works Department with the City of Hampton, one of the cities Stauty cited as collecting stormwater fees. Panzer says, "We are dealing with both a federal mandate and a state Department of Environmental Quality-approved permit. We are obligated to meet that permit, as it was approved, and to pay for all the services added. These include residential street sweeping, capital improvement for stormwater projects, education, site plan review, increased ditch maintenance and inspection, water monitoring, waterway cleanups and more.
"We've made the investment in equipment and people needed to do the job, and projected the cost of the overall program at $2.1 million. With the help of a citizen's advisory group, we've developed a billing system that equitably spreads the cost over residential and nonresidential customers, based on square footage of impervious surface. The difficulty presented by credits -- for sweeping and other projects -- is if you reduce fees for one customer while the overall program costs remain fixed, all you've done is shifted the cost back onto another customer. Unless there is flexibility in the permit process, I don't see how we can avoid the problem of fixed costs.
"The issue of offering credits for sweeping nonresidential properties did come up when our advisory group met over a year ago. Credits for sweeping has its own set of obstacles, however. We do not have the staff or the time to monitor two thousand businesses, and that's assuming my concerns are addressed about the quality of some sweeping programs. A problem is: How do we offer credits for best management practices and measure their effectiveness without creating another layer of overhead costs? This isn't to say the subject is closed. The idea of credits has merit, but until we resolve some of these issues, there will be difficulty offering credits for sweeping in our stormwater management program."
Phil Mineart, stormwater consultant for California-based Woodward-Clyde Consulting, provided his thoughts on what would be necessary to come up with data linking parking area sweeping to water quality. "In order to have some measure to compare against," says Mineart, "there would need to be a 'control' parking lot that was left unswept, as well as one that was swept with regularity. Then you might want another that was swept with varying frequencies. You'd need enough data to account for any variability that might occur between the parking areas.
Stormwater runoff fees are to be used for developing
new and enhanced sweeping programs, not just
freeing up general funds with a new source.
"By the way, a caution I have for municipal managers is to remember that the money from stormwater assessments is to be used for 'new' or 'enhanced' programs, at least here in California. What we have seen some cities do is to take street sweeping and 'move it' into the area funded by the stormwater fees. They're still doing the exact same frequency and methodology of sweeping, however, nothing more. They're just trying to free up some of their general fund in favor of a new funding source. That's not what these programs are designed to do. The EPA's intent is that stormwater assessments will be used for expanding upon the amount of sweeping provided, for example, not funding the existing amount from a new source."
Sweeping, as it applies to stormwater management, might be the catalyst the sweeping industry needs to move it to the next level as a professional industry. For example, it is widely predicted we are moving into a two-tiered society: those with access to the widespread information systems provided by online computer access, and those without. By the same token, it seems we may be moving into a two-tiered perspective in terms of sweeping: those with knowledge and expertise in providing stormwater management-oriented sweeping services, and the others who continue to offer only what might best be termed 'cosmetic sweeping.'
The sweeping industry -- through combining the expertise of equipment manufacturers, sweeping contractors, municipalities and government agencies such as the EPA -- needs to give this topic the serious investigation it deserves, on both the municipal street sweeping level and in the field of parking area sweeping. The battle to protect the quality of our streams, rivers, lakes and bays is just beginning, and all indicators show that sweeping may be able to play a significant part in it. Studies are needed which show what a sweeper must be able to do in order to be certified as capable of improving water quality, not just picking up debris.
The logical organization to take on this task is the Contract Sweepers Institute (CSI). Now, as a component of the American Public Works Association (APWA), CSI holds a position that should provide the unique perspective and ability to organize all the necessary participants to this investigation, on both a municipal and a contract sweeping level. Studies must be conducted to provide the data needed to show whether sweeping can improve water quality. If so, guidelines to maximize the reduction storm-water pollutants are needed by both sweeping manufacturers and the people who run their equipment.
We foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when being a CSI-certified sweeping contractor could mean that you have the level of expertise and service required to qualify business clients for credit toward their stormwater runoff assessment. Gaining certification as a 'stormwater sweeping professional' would require training on what types of equipment to use and how to use it correctly, bonding as professional experts, and the ability to sign off as the entity in a position to verify whether or not sweeping at a location is being performed for stormwater pollutant minimization. Under the auspices of the APWA, there is no reason a scenario like this can't become a reality. We hope that it will.
We are very interested in your questions and comments on this topic. Please send an email to Ranger Kidwell-Ross, editor.
This article is reprinted from American Sweeper magazine, v5n1.