Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Gravel tracking pads are important for your health

I've found that nearly all gravel tracking pads in Madison are out of compliance.  They are almost universally too short, and often they are so dirty as to be useless.  Happy exceptions are--one of two pads at the Target site are in compliance, and Sequoia Phase II is in compliance.

Today I found a 1996 EPA study about the effectiveness of measures to prevent tracking of mud.  For preventing the trackout of sediment, gravel pads were found to be the most effective, followed by wood-chip mulch (produced from waste on-site), with sweeping the least effective. 

Walking on a street just swept by a Bobcat, you can easily see how ineffective it is--the dirt is just spread about kind of evenly.  Nevertheless, we should enforce sweeping when the day is done, because it serves as a backup to the gravel pads.  The gutters below check dams should be thoroughly swept with hand brooms, since what's in the gutters goes directly to the lakes when it rains.

The muddy tracks go for miles, although the quantity drops off rapidly with distance.  I believe the most effective kind of sweeping would be intensive sweeping, with water, close to the site.  Of course, details have to be adapted to each site.

But here's the big surprise (for me) from this study.  Tiny particles of dust are hazardous to health, because they can penetrate deeply into lungs, carrying other toxins which adhere to them.  When dirt lies on the roads, traffic moves over it, grinding it down to smaller particles, then wafting it into the air.

The study shows that construction site tracking of mud is a significant contributor to this load of dirt on our streets.  Who would have thought that some of that mud on tires--would wind up in our lungs?  First it's second-hand smoke.  Now, it's second-hand mud in our lungs!

Yesterday, I was downtown on State Street, photographing the Rawson and Tri-North sites.  The whole area within several blocks of these sites was more dirty than usual, and it was easy to see dirt was escaping from the sites largely on tires--day in and day out.

These two companies, through their non-compliance--are not just being sloppy neighbors to nearby businesses.   They are not just harming the lakes.  They are also harming the health of the people who work and shop downtown.

Entrance to the Rawson and Tri-North sites from State St, 7/27.

#     #     #

Related news item from New York Times: "The quality of air in Chinese cities is increasingly tainted by coal-burning power plants, grit from construction sites and exhaust from millions of new cars squeezing onto crowded roads, according to a government study issued this week."

The Badger on campus with no bark and no bite

We notice that many construction sites on and around the UW campus in Madison are out of compliance with construction site erosion control.  Typically, gravel pads are too short, stormwater inlet filters unmaintained, and muddy tracks on the streets are not cleaned up.

Such negligence has resulted in muddy plumes into Lake Mendota, at Lake Street and at Willow Creek, after rains.

Lake Mendota at Lake St after rain, 7/7.

 Convoluted responsibilities may be part of the problem
  • Typically, the City is the Permit Authority.
  • But they don't have or exercise authority at the University (So why are they listed as the "permit authority" on the permits?)
  • The state Department of Administration therefore oversees the compliance. 
  • But they passed or delegated this to the DNR.
  • Meanwhile, some of the contractors like Findorff are inspecting themselves, with poor results.
Who is responsible--what I've found out for some of these cases:

Sediment tracking from Tri-North site on State St.

This contractor touts itself as the Green Building Leader.  "It's so easy being green," they say. 

We wonder why it was so hard to avoid tracking sediment out of their site.  Sediment is scattered all around the busy State Street downtown area, including N. Henry and N. Broom streets  Sweeping wasn't done after work.

In fairness, we might acknowledge that Tri-north traffic passes through the Rawson site on the way out.  But since the Rawson site isn't in compliance with gravel pads or sweeping, this puts Tri-North out of compliance.  Some of that sediment downtown is Tri-North's, no matter how you cut it.

This site is the Elizabeth Link Peace Park redevelopment, between State Street and W. Gillman.

The gravel pad at this site is clearly too short, and barely visible in the soil, which will turn to mud with the next rain.

Who is responsible:
Contractor: Tri-North Builders
Permit Authority: City of Madison, Tim Troester 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Rm 115, Madison WI 53703 (608) 267-1995
Permittee: City of Madison - Parks William Bauer 210 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Madison WI 53703 608-267-4921

Minor problems with Miron Construction at Chadbourne and Barnard Halls

The following problems with Miron Construction were observed on the afternoon of 7/27:

Inlet filter on University Av near Park St clogged, needs service.

Sediment fences down along sidewalk, University Av.

Who is responsible:  This site seems to have been omitted from the City's map of construction projects.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Good erosion control at Target site by Ryan Companies

At the Target Store construction site by University Ave at Hilldale, there was almost no sediment leaving the site after the heavy storm of 7/22.  This looks like a challenging site inside, due to soft sand and slopes.  But the slope bottoms out to the east before reaching the edge of the site.  There's enough room for settling ponds on-site.

Ryan Companies, the contractor, is using StormProMax software for tracking stormwater compliance.

Grant Pokos, an engineer specializing in erosion control, was on site after the storm, making the 24-hr inspection after the recent storms.  Grant is a consultant from JSD Professional Services.

The foundation on the E side filled with water.  It was being pumped to a basin on the SW corner.

Erosion control cloth was being used on the sandy banks of the cut along the S side.

View from S side looking E.

Only two minor problem areas: One was the NE corner, where a little sediment was getting into a clogged filter.

Grant Pokos said the filter belonged to University Av reconstruction.

The only other problem: The gravel pad on the S side (left) was too short.  But the pad on the N side was the proper length.

Kudos to those responsible:

Permit authority: Tim Troester, City of Madison, (608) 267-1995,
Permittee: Target Corporation, Marc Steadman, PO Box 1173, Minneapolis MN 55440, 612-761-1518,
Stormwater consultant and site inspector: Grant Pokos, JSD Professional Services, 608-848-5060
Contractor: Ryan Companies, Ben Wise-Field Engineer, 612-492-4449 office, 612-554-6748 cell

Violations by Findorff Construction at Park St

Violations by Findorff Construction on Park St between University and Johnson:
  • Streets dirty, tracks coming out, not swept after work
  • No gravel tracking pad
  • No filter on an obvious stormwater inlet, which receives runoff from the dirty pavement

Looking N on Park St from Johnson St.  Dirty tracks.
Stormwater inlet without filter, looking W across Park St from E side.

More photos of this site here.

 Who is responsible:
Findorff Construction Company
This project seems to have been omitted from the City's map of construction sites.

Violations at Findorff Site for Chazen Museum addition

Above and below: The gravel pads at the two construction entrances of University Av are too short.

The storm sewer inlets on University Ave are clogged and need service.

Who is responsible

Apparently, no one is responsible, because the erosion control is not getting done properly.  I heard that the City doesn't exercise or have authority over the University--so why are they listed on the permit as the "permit authority"?  On University property (is Chazen the Univ?), the state's Department of Administration has authority, but they passed it off to the DNR.  Are you following this?  In the end, the contractor is inspecting itself, as they were doing at Henry Mall, with bad results.

Permit authority: City of Madison, Tim Troester, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Rm 115, Madison WI 53703, (608) 267-1995,
Permittee: University of Wisconsin FPM, Gary Brown, 610 Walnut Street, Madison WI 53726, 608-263-3023,
Authorized inspector: Jason Jones, 300 S. Bedford Street, Madison WI 53703, 608-442-7346,

Heroic sediment control by Miron Construction on Langdon St

The Miron Construction site on Langdon St, next to the Memorial Union and Lake Mendota, requires special precautions, because it's so close to the lake. 

But really, any job on pavement, with a stormwater inlet below, can be considered "next to the Lake."  Sediment on pavement runs down the nearest stormwater inlet, then to the lakes via stormwater pipes.  Inlet filters are not very effective.

One method we seldom see employed, is to deflect incoming stormwater.  Here, runoff from the roof of a nearby building is piped directly to the stormwater inlet.

Miron is pumping muddy water from the construction hole into a tank where it passes through several filters.

From the filter tank, it feeds by gravity to a large bladder of filter cloth.  The water leaks out perfectly clear into the storm sewer.

We observed this system earlier after a storm.  At that time, there was much more water, with a pump running.  Under those conditions, water coming out of the bladder was not clear but muddy.
Miron has built an effective berm around the hole to keep runoff out.  This means less pumping and filtering is needed.

Congratulations, Miron!

Photos of how this system works right after a heavy rain here.

Sediment tracking out of Rawson Construction site on Gillman Ave

On 7/27, I looked at the W. Gillman St. construction site by Rawson Contractors.

State St end of W. Gilman. The gravel pad is too short, and is clearly inadequate for this vehicle.

This street construction site is easy to control, because all you have to do is control tracking in and out, and control the runoff at the intersection of State Street and Gillman St.  The runoff has no other place to exit except at the bottom of Gillman St.

What I liked about measures at this site was gravel check dams in either gutter, near State Street.  The dams appeared to be catching most of the sediment before it could reach the inlet filters or State Street.

What was sloppy about this site
  • Much sediment was leaving by vehicle tracks.  Streets were very dirty.  Two construction jobs enter the area by either end of Gillman St.  Violation: Street sweeping after work needed.  I checked after work on 7/27, and no sweeping had been done, either end.
  • The gravel tracking pads are inadequate--at State St, the pad is too short.  At Gillman and Henry St., the pad is nonexistant.  Violation: gravel pad non-compliance.
  • Most vehicles were entering via N. Henry St, where there was no gravel pad.  Consequently, sediment was washing down Henry St to the corner with W. Gorham St, where there were no inlet filters. See photo belowInlet filters at corner of Henry & Gorham needed.

Who is responsible:

Rawson Contractors  Sussex WI; Kenneth Servi, President; 262-695-2900,
Permit authority: City of Madison, Tim Troester, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Rm 115, Madison WI 53703, (608) 267-1995,
Permittee: City Engineering, John Fahrney, 1600 Emil Street, Madison WI, (608) 266-9091

Photos here showing that no sweeping was done after work on 7/27.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A debate over sediment pond under construction

The issues behind the Old Middleton Road pond that nearly failed are complex.  I thought it might help to have an imaginary debate between two engineers.   Mr. Raise wants to "raise the bar" on erosion control measures in Madison.  Mr. Stand designed the project, is a little defensive, and wants to stand his ground.

Stand: I don't see what the problem is with the plan, or what we did.  We allowed runoff into the pond during construction, because it was going that way anyway.  Once in the pond, the runoff was retained and had a chance to settle.  So with a minimum of work, we started treating runoff nearly from day one.  What's wrong with that?  Cheap and effective.

Raise:  True... but the pond nearly failed.  If we had received the 6 inches of rain they had in Milwaukee that night, surely it would have.  Then there would have been a big sediment spill--plus repair to the pond itself.  OK, we're lucky the pond didn't fail.  But now the work is set back for weeks while the pond drains--and we could have another storm during that time.  And the runoff going into the pond--during the storm--eroded the inside slope of the pond.  We're going to have to dredge the pond several years earlier than we hoped.  All those are costs of NOT doing better erosion control. Photo: Gully from runoff going to pond, 7/26.

Stand: In a few more days, we would have finished the spillway.  In just a few days, the pond would have been protected against overflow.  The probability of a big storm during those few days was pretty remote.

Raise:  Yes, but it happened.  Don't forget, you have to multiply those small probabilities by the hundreds of projects we have in Madison.  Even if they are rare, it's the big storms that cause big erosion and big pollution to the lake.  Besides, with climate change, big storms are going to be more common.

Stand: You said you wanted to deflect the runoff coming down the south slope of Old Middleton Road to the downstream (E) side of the road--away from the pond?  Well, that's a steep bank, disturbed when they cut the trees.   Without added runoff, there's already a big gully forming there.  The silt fences below failed.  How can that area take any more runoff?  Better to send it to the pond, just as I did.

Looking down steep bank on E side of Old Middleton Rd.  Runoff from E side of road formed a gully here, and breached the silt fence below.

Raise:  I can see there's a problem on the downstream side of Old Middleton Rd.  Yes, that's a sign that overall erosion control for this project wasn't sufficient.  Controls there should be "beefed up" enough so that road bank can take runoff that would have gone into the pond.  I see you've already added a big check dam of gravel at the bottom. 

Stand: Yes, the the bank from the road to the flood plain is steep and eroding.  You can't stop that with just a check dam at the bottom.

Raise: That's where you need more tools in your kit.  At the Target construction site, they are using erosion control fabric on the steepest slopes.  You could use it on this slope. 

Erosion control fabric at Target construction site in Madison, 7/24/10

In fact, if you had protected the pond with a temporary fabric spillway, and the side of the pond where the runoff went in, then you could still have put runoff into the pond, with less chance of failure.

Stand: Fabric sounds pretty fragile against a flood.  Won't the water get under it, and erode anyway?

Raise: It's not that fragile--it's good enough for one or two storms.  As you said yourself, it's only needed  for a short time.  And you could reuse it on another project.  To keep water from getting under, you have to tuck the top and edges under the soil, like you do for a silt fence.  You can hold it down and channel the water with sand bags or silt socks.

Stand: All these extra measures--fabric spillways--redirecting runoff away from the pond.... sound expensive.  You have to multiply those expenses by the hundreds of projects we have.

Raise: Yes, it does require an increase in our budget for erosion control.  But the people want cleaner lakes.  Over the next few years, we have millions budgeted for more retention basins, and other measures to ensure Madison's compliance with 40% reduction in sediment by 2013.  If we have a big spill here, causing more pollution just to save a few thousand dollars, then won't we be partly wasting those millions?  Robbing Peter to pay Paul?  Doesn't it make sense to figure out here how to make retention ponds without causing a lot of pollution, before we make more ponds?

If you are worried about expense, you can focus on the biggest problems.  By walking around a site, you can judge which ones pose the greatest risk.  Some sites are much more difficult to control than others.  Risk factors are sites with steep slopes, sites close to a waterway or lake, and sites with a lot of incoming runoff.  This site had all three risk factors.  The disastrous Edgewood Av project had two risk factors.  The upcoming Hillcrest-Upland Greenway project has two of three risk factors, but the amount of incoming runoff there will be especially large.  And the contractor for that project, S&L Underground and Trucking, budgeted only $500 for "stormwater control!"  We let them get away with that!  Insane! 

Stand: Well, I don't know about all those future benefits of more erosion control. I'm a "here and now" kind of guy.  As an engineer, you gotta focus on your project.  But I am annoyed that now, with this pond full of water, we can't finish the job.  We're going to be late in getting the banks stabilized with plants before winter.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sediment pond under construction at risk during storm

Pond under construction nearly overflowed by 7:00 am 7/23.

Two sediment ponds are under construction along the SW side of Old Middleton Rd, a bit west of Capitol Drive.  The purpose is to treat stormwater coming mostly from Old Middleton Rd.  There are also plans to widen the road here, with the addition of sidewalks and bike lanes.

Neighbors in the area have been opposed to the widespread disturbance to the wild area from construction.  About 200 trees were cut to make way for the ponds, and another 200 for widening the road.  News story.

The pond nearly overflowed

After the recent rain storms of 7/22 and 7/23, the southern pond under construction could have failed.  By failure, I mean that the pond filled by the morning of 7/23 to within about a foot (in elevation) of overflowing. 

"The National Weather Service indicated that nearly four (4) inches* of rain fell yesterday and they are predicting up to three (3) more inches by 7:00am 7/24. Dane County is currently under a flash flood watch until 10:00am Saturday."  Source.

The pond's spillway hasn't been constructed yet.  If the pond were to overflow, rushing water could cut into the soft bank of loose soil, unprotected by any vegetation.   It's possible erosion would continue till the pond emptied.  Large amounts of sediment would spill into the creek next to the pond.  And from there, it's only half a mile to Lake Mendota.  There would also be a huge gash in the side of the pond to repair.

An outlet pipe also has not been installed.   The pond is close to the water table, and has walls made of clay (plus some clay in the bottom).  So it's going to drain very slowly, and will probably have to be pumped out, in order to finish construction.

A basic precaution overlooked

Runoff from Old Middleton Rd. entered pond just in front of the shovel, running in a pipe under the gravel pad.

One of the basic rules of erosion control--often neglected--is to deflect any runoff coming from outside, so it doesn't get into the construction site.  The rain itself is enough of a problem, without having more water flowing in from the outside.

In this case, Old Middleton Rd has a long slope to the SE of the pond, feeding much stormwater into the unfinished pond.  The pond was designed to handle this runoff, but not yet!  This incoming runoff could have been easily deflected from the unfinished pond.**

This construction site has already experienced some erosion problems.  Prior to 7/22, the silt fence protecting the creek from sediment had leaked.  Then during the rains on 7/22, the silt fence for the south pond collapsed, dumping sediment into he creek.  By  7/24, that had been repaired, plus the addition of a gravel dam.  But the runoff from Old Middleton going into the overfilled pond still had not been deflected, even though there was a flash flood warning in effect for three more inches of rain!

By neglecting this basic precaution of deflecting runoff--even after the pond filled and with more flash floods forecast--the work already done on the pond was jeopardized, and Lake Mendota was put in danger of a large sediment spill.

Deflecting incoming water was not mentioned in the erosion control plan, which illustrates just how inadequate these plans typically are.

Destroying nature to save nature

Sediment ponds serve an important function--protecting the lakes.  But large sediment ponds, with poor erosion control during construction, may not be the best way to protect the lake.

Sediment ponds are supposed to "save nature" by keeping sediment out of the lakes.  But here, with cutting 200 trees plus a close call with a bad sediment spill, we have another example of  "destroying nature to save nature." 

The pond on the left is the one that nearly failed. The notch in the wall, above the sediment fence, is where it would have overtopped.  Sediment would then have been flushed down the creek (center) to L. Mendota.

This is the long slope of Old Middleton Rd, down which the runoff came.  The gray pipe in the lower right corner goes under the gravel pad by the shovel, and into the pond.
This pipe should have been plugged.

Here's where the pipe goes under the gavel pad, taking water to the pond.  Some water flowed past the caterpillar (center).  Water could have been directed that way around the pond.

Could the pond really have failed, emptied, and sent a major sediment spill to L. Mendota?  It probably would have taken 1-2 more inches of rain to overflow--but three more were forecast.  The newly disturbed soil was wet and soft--and the slope from overflow point to creek was relatively steep.  This photos shows two of three gullies where runoff came into the pond.  When overflowing, water would have created one gully much deeper.  We were lucky--but what this incident shows, is that plans were poor, no one noticed the danger, and no one took corrective action.
Photo 7/23, 7:00 am, by Tim Heath.

Who is responsible for this lapse
  • Design Engineer: Lisa Coleman, 266-4093, City Engineering, . No mention of the need to deflect runoff was made in the erosion control plan.
  • Construction Engineer: John Fahrney, City Engineering,
  • Contractor: Rawson Contractors (Low bid was $1, 399, 029.85), Kenneth Servi, President,
  • Permit authority: Tim Troester, (608) 267-1995,
  • Erosion Control Permittee: Signed by Robert Phillips, delegated to John Fahrney, City Engineering,(608) 266-9091,
  • Inspector on 7/23 who missed last chance to deflect inflow: Stewart Mael, (608) 261-9695,
  • Grantor of permit for construction of ponds: DNR Water Management Specialist Cami Peterson, 608-275-3208.  No mention was made in the permit of the need to deflect runoff from the ponds under construction.
Slide shows
Failure of the silt fences due to stakes (about 1" x 1") being too weak.

The report of 4 inches was for parts of Dane Co.  For Madison, the rainfall was very spotty.  Wunderground indicates that rainfall at zipcode 53705 for 7/22 and 7/23 was only 1.63 in.  The pond is supposed to fill with about 2-3 in of rain, which is what it seems to have done.

**  The runoff into the pond could have been easily deflected to the other side of the street, and downstream of the pond, by building a small berm of asphalt on the street; or around the SE side of the pond to the creek, using a silt sock to deflect the water (or a minimal amount of grading).

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why erosion can be called "a sediment spill"

Sediment spilled at the bottom of Edgewood Av, after June 21 storm.
By Jon Standridge

Many of the causes of Madison's sediment problems are similar to the causes of the BP disaster in the Gulf. 

Both oil and mud are very harmful to aquatic ecosystems. Here's a summary from a USGS fact sheet:

Results of a local study "indicated that small construction sites are potential sources of large amounts of sediment erosion. Sediment loads from the two monitored construction sites were 10 times larger than typical loads from rural and urban land uses in Wisconsin."

"When left uncontrolled, large amounts of soil and other small particles collectively called sediment can move off of construction sites along with other attached pollutants. By volume, sediment is the greatest pollutant entering our surface waters, and causes multiple problems."

"Sediment buries plant and animal habitat critical to healthy streams, lakes, and wetlands. Loss of habitat reduces the number, diversity, and productivity of plants and animals living in aquatic environments."

Sediment that remains suspended in the water column reduces water clarity, inhibits aquatic plant growth, lowers the aesthetic and recreational values of water resources, and makes it difficult for some fish to find food.

Suspended sediment increases the solar heating of water, scours aquatic life in streams, and clogs the gills of fish and aquatic insects. Warm water holds less oxygen than cooler water (oxygen is vital to aquatic animals) and increased water temperatures are stressful to coldwater fish such as trout.

Particulate-bound nutrients, such as phosphorus delivered to surface waters by eroded soils, often causes algal blooms and alterations in the food chains, which further reduces the quality of these water resources.
Standing in the rotting "delta" at the bottom of Edgewood Av.  It's black, and it stinks.

Some differences between oil and mud
  • Oil is more sticky, fouling birds and mammals more than mud. But mud also fouls many aquatic organisms.
  • Mud sinks, while oil rises to the top.
  • Oil is more toxic.  Yet mud ends up being quite toxic through a chain of cause and effect.  By heating the water and diminishing the oxygen, it can kill fish.  Mud stimulates algae blooms, which can be toxic enough to kill your pet.
  • Oil stinks more than mud, but mud stimulates algae, which then dies and rots.
 Because of the similarities between oil and mud, and because big storms dump enough sediment to qualify as a "spill," I'm going to use the term "sediment spill" in future articles.

Mud plume into L. Mendota--it looks like an oil spill.

WSJ story: Standards are going down the drain

On Sunday, there was a big story in the Wisconsin State Journal about problems with enforcement at construction sites.

The story documents how the City and State are failing to enforce laws on erosion control, and why that harms the health of our lakes. The story is now available online here, and a video showing City inspector Tim Troester and resident David Thompson is available here.

City lowers the bar for erosion control

On the video, I found Tim Troester's explanation of where the City sets the bar for erosion control to be very informative. Here, in the video, he's referring to a project's Erosion Control Plan, which is frequently designed by City engineers:

"...[For] most plans the standard has been to design those erosion controls to the one and two year rain events. Of course we have rainfall that exceeds these frequently, but it comes to a cost comparison, a cost effectiveness. We can always do more for erosion control, but at some point, it can end up costing more for the erosion control, than it does to redo a street or a project. And where that tradeoff is, is still to be debated."

The law--on which the EC Plan is based--makes no such excuse or exception for costs. It makes no exception for big or small rain events. So Madison has rewritten the law for its own convenience.

One thing I learned from following the Edgewood Av sediment spill of June 21, is that certain hilly sites, close to waterways, are much more prone to failure than others. So the "tradeoff" Troester speaks of ought to be adjusted for these difficult sites. Let's dig into some numbers.

How much does erosion control cost at a difficult site?

The Hillcrest Upland Greenway is due for construction starting Oct. 4. It presents a site more challenging than the Edgewood Av site because it's a narrow ravine emptying a basin half a mile long. So the Greenway project could be a good test to see whether, the way the City practices erosion control, costs are getting out of hand.

Troester said: " some point, [erosion control] can end up costing more than it does [for] a project." Is that what's happening here?

I looked at the bid from the low-bidder for the project. The cost for erosion control measures during construction amounted to 7.4% of the total contract amount.*

Given that this is a difficult site, and that one of the reasons for this project is to control sediment from the ravine after the project is finished, 7.4 % does not look like a very high standard for erosion control.

# # #

* This figure included erosion control matting, which might be considered part of the post-construction planting, depending when it's applied. But the figure excludes planting of ground cover, planting of trees, or the riprapped channel, which amount to restoring the land surface to what it was before it was disturbed. Included in my total for "erosion control during construction" were items 21001, 20217, 21014, 21015, 21017, 21018, 21019, 50361, 90035, 90036, 90037, 90038, and 90039.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why erosion control fails--slippage at every step


Poor results are the outcome of slippage at every step of the erosion control process, starting with...

Poor erosion control plans, which depend on not very effective BMPs, applied by reluctant contractors, who are seldom inspected by overly permissive inspectors, and so on.

Update 6/7/11: I used to think, as many citizens believe, that construction site problems are due to negligent contractors.  But this is an oversimplification.  If the symphony sounds sour-- is it the fault of the Conductor or the musicians?  Well, it's both... but I'd give most blame to the Conductor.

Same with construction.  City Engineering (or DNR is some cases) is like the Conductor.  They formulate the erosion control plans, and tell the contractors how and when to carry them out.  The contractor just follows their orders.  So the City (or DNR) is really responsible for the failures we see.  Yes, sometimes a contractor drops the ball--but the City's responsibility is to make sure they don't.

The list

Below, I've listed the most “systemic” problems higher on list, with local problems lower on list.

1. Private enterprise is poorly suited to managing a “commons” (our lakes). There are no economic incentives for improving the lakes.

2. Erosion control is an art rather than a science. Every construction site and storm is unique.

3. Construction sites are constantly & rapidly changing; erosion control is a moving target.

4. Erosion control at the watershed level is a complex task, which must involve the community and requires strong leadership.

5. Bureaucracies focus on rules rather than outcome (which is clean lakes); complex tasks must focus on outcomes.

6. Culture of engineers--likes certainty, doesn’t like to engage community. Weather not certain.

7. Construction sites are very cramped, so solutions are difficult (unless storm water is exported to other treatment locations nearby)

8. Everyone (public, officials, contractors) is focused on short-term goals and outcomes

9. People (public, contractors, officials) seldom see the invisible damage caused by erosion

10. Apathetic public doesn’t understand the issues or causes of lake problems

11. Ideological clash between “grey infrastructure” and “green infrastructure” concepts

12. Bureaucracy set in ways, & not representing diverse views (Engineering Dept. and Board of Public Works). See the Stormwater Management initiative.

13. Alders have power if they work with Engineering, but little power individually to oppose.

14. Resistance to change; traditions of City Engineering--they respond mainly to complaints about drainage, want to “work with” contractors

15. Budgetary constraints--too few inspectors; too little budget for robust erosion control.  "Penny-wise but pound foolish" approach.

16. To compete for contracts, contractors underbid on erosion control items. The City permits this.

17. Contractors need better understanding of erosion control basics

18. Low priority given to erosion control plans (they get much less attention than the project plan)

19. Watershed approach to storm water is “not my job, ” say City engineers.  How do we make it their job?

20. Poor communication between agencies (a fragmented view of watershed; conflicting goals)

21. Hoping for good weather, rather than planning for storms

22. Byzantine division of responsibilities enable passing the buck

23. Some BMPs (like tire washing) are dismissed out of hand; reluctance to adopt new ones.

24. Wording of regulations is flawed: “Streets will be swept daily OR as ordered by the City.”

25. Lack of leadership at highest levels concerning the issues and goals for City

26. Contractors and city would rather pay the fines or fill the gullies than prevent them

27. Conflicting motivations (or departments) in City. Save time, save money, or save the lakes?

28. Engineers have to “work with” contractors, and so can’t be enforcers, who relate differently

29. Unwritten Department policy that only smaller storms (2 inches of rain) will be planned for

30. Current enforcement is too “cozy,” with self-inspections, few fines, and warnings of inspections. More reliance on “deterrence” is needed.
#     #     #

That list is a mouthful. 

We need to start by acknowledging that this is a difficult problem.  It's difficult for contractors too, because of intense competition, and because their sites are chaotic and constantly changing.  Good book on difficult problems.

This list is the result of about two months of my reading, inspecting sites, and listening to others.  Thanks to Jon Standridge for contributing #16.

Farmers VS Contractors

Today I received this comment:

"It blows me away that all you do is look at contractors when by far and away the biggest polluter of our streams are farmers, not the big one but the small ones. They are the sacred cow and nobody cares."

I heard almost the same comment when I was talking with a contractor a few days ago.  So I thought I would reprint a discussion thread from last spring on the Save our Stream blog.

Sumary of the discussion below

"Why get upset about pollution from contractors or urban dwellers, when farmers are really contributing more nutrients to our lakes?" 

While this is true, I don't think it's a productive argument, because it's divisive.  It's a form of blaming others.  It invites others to do the same.  Urban dwellers earn the right to criticise farmers when city people get their own house in order.  While contractors contribute just 19% of lake nutrients, they are highly organized, with relatively few people making decisions.  If contractors cannot clean up their act, then who can?

Details of the discussion thread

LukeW said...


Nice post, glad you're passionate about the lakes. Just wanted to point out that a lot of P (as in phosphorous) going into Mendota comes from fertilizer and animal waste from the farms up-river, not really from the city itself.

Here's a good paper written on it.


May 17, 2010 8:36 PM

Webmaster said...


Thanks for calling that article to my attention. You are probably right that more of the phosphorus (fertilizer) going into the lakes comes from agriculture outside the city. Unfortunately, that has often been used as an argument for doing little within the city.

The article addresses import and export of phosphorus to/from the watershed (such as into the soils), not phosphorus actually going into the lake. In addition, for the city, they looked only at fertilizer on lawns. They ignored all other kinds of input to lakes, such as dog waste, leaf litter, ashes, and leakage from sewage pipes. So I suspect the study underestimates urban contributions to lake fertilization.

Anyway, as city dwellers, we need to do our part!

May 21, 2010 1:32 PM

LukeW said...


You're absolutely right that as city dwellers we need to do our part too. But it is dangerous to start chasing potential phosphorous inputs that, according to our best estimates, are small or unimportant compared to the real culprits of change in our lakes.

For example, dog waste is likely minimal. You could try estimating it by looking at dog food imports into Madison, but it likely doesn't approach the estimated 700,000 kg/y that just corn fertilizer represents.

Sewage pipe leakage is a tough one, it would be very difficult to estimate accurately. But one could still think critically about it. Due to their buried position, any major leakage would probably show up in ground water impacts before it became a major contribution to the lake (I'm of course not referring to major inputs from sewage placed directly into the lake before proper treatment started).

In the end, this is all about most effectively using state funds to mitigate problems with the lake. It is very likely that one of the most cost effective reductions in phosphorous is not mitigation efforts in Madison, it is most likely working with farmers in the watershed to cut down on field and animal waste runoff. I think this cost-benefit analysis need to be considered.


May 26, 2010 8:58 PM

Webmaster said...

Luke, you are absolutely right that agriculture runoff is key for the big lakes. Cost-benefit analysis is also very important. If ag runoff is your interest, go for it! Every one's contribution is needed.

However, for Lake Wingra, urban runoff must be the most important contribution.

Before urban citizens gain the right to preach to their rural brothers, they first have to get their own house in order. The lakes are our recreation, but agriculture represents their income. Urban citizens weigh in with more people, but farmers have a more intense interest in continuing agriculture as they know it. With a City Engineering dept, we have a whole infrastructure that farmers don't have.

In a sense, comparing urban to rural inputs is like comparing apples to oranges. I'm not sure where this leads, except to say, again, that we urban dwellers have to do our part. When you single out one group, even the most important, the whole political thing starts to descend to finger pointing.

We point to the farmers and say, "You're most important, for reason A, so you do something first." They point back and say Urban dwellers are the most important, for reason B. Stalemate.

The science is important, but this goes beyond science arguments. Somehow, we all have to find the will to do something more rigorous, because we all care, and we all want to succeed. When Wisconsinites reach that point of commitment, we will all pitch in, roll up our sleeves, and get to work, without asking who is the baddest actor.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Citizen inspectors wanted

This blog, and Sunday's article on construction sites in the Wisconsin State Journal, both resulted from my activities as a Citizen Inspector.

Why get involved?

If you love our lakes, you can make a difference.

If you hate what BP did to the Gulf, you can prevent it here.  What contractors are doing to our lake is a mini-version of the disaster in the Gulf.  Through wilful neglect by contractors and ineffective regulation by the City, construction sites are spoiling the lakes that are the heart and soul of Madison.

The laws are all on our side.  If the City won't enforce the law, then citizens must.  There's nothing illegal about walking around the perimeter of a construction site, taking photos.  You don't have to go inside.  It's the mud that comes out that we're concerned with.

When I'm out inspecting sites, I feel like I'm caring for the lakes.  Construction sites are like wounds to the skin of our watershed.  Current practices create more serious wounds than necessary.  By working as an inspector, you are serving as a doctor for the landscape.

And most of all, it's fun.  Going out in the rain, when everyone else runs indoors, is like an exotic vacation.  Why pay $5,000 for a trip to the Amazon, when you can slog through the mud and the rain for free, finding out about nature, and serving a cause?

Do I need training?

You don't know anything about erosion control regulations?  No problem!  All that's needed is eyes in your head, and a camera.

If a person sees a burglar breaking into their neighbor's house, they don't have to be a lawyer or a detective to call 911.

The most effective thing you can do is take your camera and go out in the rain, or right after a heavy rain.  Watch for muddy water leaving the construction site, and take a photo.

If you study a bit here or here, you can be more effective.   But after viewing a number of sites in the rain, you'll have more training than most contractors. 

Gearing up!

The heavier the storm, the better.  I put on shorts, t-shirt, and teva sandals.  I know I'm going to get wet, so I don't even try to stay dry.  I put my camera in a plastic bag, and carry an umbrella.  When I spot the photo, I take the camera out of the bag, but keep it under the umbrella.  Using a lens hood helps keep drops off the lens.

If you prefer going after the rain stops, photograph the damage and debris caused by stormwater.  And especially, photograph the muddy water emptying into a lake or stream.

If your photos are especially dramatic, I'm interested in them.

Hold people responsible

When you download your photos, put a few important notes into the filename, such as the date, location, and what the photo shows.

Next, identify your site on the Map of sites. Click on your site, say University Av, Biochemistry II bldg.  There, you will see links: Make comment, or view inspections.

If you click on make comment, you can send your comments about this site to City inspectors.  The good news--this will prompt an inspection.  The bad news--the City is very lenient with contractors.

It would be more effective to click on view inspections.  Here you can see who is the permittee (who broke the regs), and who is the inspector.  Then, you can send an email to each of these people.  Also e-mail your Alder (your district and alder's e-mail here).  Be sure to put your photo of the problem into the email.  (In the case of UW sites, the info on the web is out-to-date: DNR is now responsible for enforcement.)

After you click on view inspections and get the new page of details about the project, scroll down a bit.  Under project documents, you can see the Erosion Control (EC) permits, or the EC Plan.  Scroll down a bit further, and you can see the Inspection History--the actual results of inspections.  This is Never-Never Land, where things are never what they seem.  You may look at a clogged filter, and see that when it was inspected yesterday, they said it was "correct," meaning OK.

What to look for--common violations

I'm talking mostly about sites within the City of Madison.  There are basically two kinds of construction sites--buildings going up, and street reconstruction (including sewers, water mains, etc.).  But the rules are pretty much the same.  With street construction, you can usually enter the site, because lanes are maintained for local residents or emergency vehicles.

Clogged inlet filters.  Just about all EC Plans call for a filter on the first stormwater inlet downstream.  They are supposed to be regularly cleaned.  Frequently, the are clogged, passing sediment on down the street to the next inlet, which is unprotected.  You should notify people that the next inlet needs a filter also, if it's receiving sediment.

Silt barriers.  The perimeter of sites, or piles of disturbed soil, should have either a cloth dam, or a silt sock around them.  They also are supposed to be maintained.  If the sediment is getting past them, this is a violation (lack of maintenance).

Gravel tracking pads.  These are supposed to be 50' long, made of washed gravel.  Odds are, you won't find any that long, especially at street construction sites.  Still, I would blow the whistle on the short ones.    If you see muddy tire tracks coming out, that proves they aren't working.

Street cleaning.  Contractors are supposed to sweep the streets as far as necessary from their sites, at the end of the day, to clean up mud tracked out of the site.  While the muddy tracks may be hard to see, they still put tons of mud into the lakes.  That faint track goes on for miles and miles.  While it may be impractical to sweep more than a few blocks from the site, sweeping is important and nearly always neglected. 

Especially important is sweeping the gutters that have become dirty from heavy equipment.  Even in a light rain, the gutters will fill with water, and the mud will go straight to the nearest stormwater inlet, which is poorly protected with filters.

We especially want to monitor closely sites that are steep, or close to a lake or stream.  These are the difficult sites to control--and the ones that should be receiving extra-special care.  If you find such a site, please let me know!

How to use photos effectively

The point is to tell the complete story.  Get an overview of the site, the contractor's sign/logo, show the individual problems within the site, show the mud going downstream, and finally if possible, into a lake or stream.

If you show a clogged filter closeup, also get a photo of where the sediment is coming from, and a shot that shows where the stormwater inlet is in the neighborhood.  Always try to orient the viewer.

If you show runoff during a big storm, return the next day to show the gullies and the sediment dumped outside the site.

Take some basic notes (when, where, your route around the site, just after or during rain, etc.)

Now, upload your photos to a sharing site.  I love Flickr.  It's wonderful for personal uses also.  You can easily put slide shows together of the erosion problem, and email the link.  If you're going to do this more than once, you should get a "professional" flickr account, which costs $35/2 years--then you can upload unlimited photos.

Finally, email your photo report on flickr to the inspection authority, the contractor, your alder (our county board supervisor), your local Friends group or environmental group overseeing the body of water, and a media outlet or journalist.  Put a link to your photos on chat rooms about local issues, and on your Facebook or Twitter page.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The legal foundation of the Erosion Control Plan

This is pretty complex stuff.  So here's a boil-down, provided by Jamie Saul.

The construction site stormwater requirements flow from the federal level on down:
  • The Federal Clean Water Act, and EPA regulations on the subject, defined what state agencies are required to do
  • State regulations, written by DNR, essentially implement these federal requirements within Wisconsin (they don’t necessarily mirror the EPA requirements in all instances)
  • The City, as landowner and permittee, has the primary responsibility to follow the permit that it has received from DNR
  • The Contractor, by city ordinance or simple contract (and possibly also by exerting control over the construction site itself), is required to follow the permit and the erosion control plan.

These various laws require erosion contnrol plans, based on best management practices (BMPs).  So the entires system depends on well-designed plans, which must be carefully implemented, well maintained, and well-inspected.
But because few people are out in the storm to see the discharge (inspectors and contractors included), and because the legal process is so complicated, erosion control has become the ugly stepsister of the industry.  To contractors, it seems like just another meaningless hoop to jump through.
Many industries are regulated in a different way--more goal oriented, based on how much discharge comes out of a smokestack.  That's easier to do, when the industry is always there, chugging away.
But construction sites are temporary, while the weather is unpredictable.  These features of the industry are what make erosion so difficult to regulate and control. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

Rules and the Erosion Control Plan

I was talking to a friend recently over lunch-- he's an urban planning consultant, so I always value his insights.

I explained to him how this blog tends to focus on the outcome of erosion control--whether or not mud is getting into the lake.  After a bit of hesitation, he said he really didn't agree with that approach--that erosion control practices have to be based on rules and regulations.

His critique forced me to think more about the rules.   Yes, I believe in the rule of law.  And yes, workers on a complex construction site need simple but definite directions to guide them.  We have plenty of rules now, yet despite the rules, too much mud goes into the lake after every storm.  Why is that?

The question about why the present system isn't working, and how we can make it better, is really the central mission of this blog.

So far, I've identified 30 kinds of failure.  Each one alone isn't so bad.  But when you add many together, the system fails to protect the lakes. 

Obviously, you want to look for the flawed procedure that has the biggest contribution, or is the easiest to fix.  I have a few candidates:

The Erosion Control Plan (EC Plan)

I've looked at some of these now, in detail, and find them very, very inadequate.  They are done as a trivial afterthought to the painstaking design of a project.  They neglect the most basic considerations, such as the amount of runoff entering the site from above it.

Weather is the cause of erosion.  Big weather is the cause of big erosion.  So effective EC plans must accommodate big storms.  Yet some EC plans produced by the City of Madison do not seek to accommodate even moderate storms.   Yes, I agree there's the possible 1000 year storm that no plan can accommodate.  But let's set the bar a lot higher than it is now.

The Best Management Practice (BMP)

Together, a number of BMPs approved by the DNR and published in a manual make up the "toolkit" of the EC plan designer.

Unfortunately, a number of these BMPs are very dull tools indeed. 

Let's take the example of the filter used at stormwater inlets.  It's made of filter fabric stretched across the opening, or hanging inside like a bag.  This is probably the most common tool, almost universal.  That's because they are cheap, easy to install, and easy to forget.

But observation of them in the rain indicates marginal effectiveness.
  • Frequently filters are clogged, or flaps of excess fabric have blown over the entrance.  So a large percentage of water headed for them just goes on past, to the next stormwater inlet (which is probably unprotected).
  • Sometimes the filters are ripped on installed incorrectly, so unfiltered water gets past them into the opening.
  • The filters can only trap the larger particles--tiny particles of mud go right through.  Since the great majority of pollution is attached to the small particles, inlet filters can stop only a small fraction of the pollution leaving a construction site.

Stormwater inlet with filter, 7/7.  This is one of the few filters for a large project by Findorff.  Left: You can see it is clogged, and passing sediment downstream to the right.  Right: Enlarged, you can see the same filter has been clogged for so long that weeds are growing. Click to enlarge.

Another BMP is the gravel tracking pad.  The purpose is to prevent muddy tracks from leaving the site.  These are supposed to be 50 feet long, but almost never are that long.  At many sites, they have sunk into the mud, so they are no longer working.

Washing of tires (of vehicles leaving a site) is another BMP designed to address the same problem as gravel tracking pads.  But tires washing isn't practiced in Madison.  If I mention "tire washing," contractors and EC inspectors fall silent, as if I had done something very rude.  It's their worst fear.  Yet there it is, an approved and effective tool that no one uses.

My conclusion--our rule-based erosion control depends on the Erosion Control Plan, which consists of BMPs.  If both are fundamentally flawed, then the system of rules simply can't work.  That's why I have been forced to look at mud that's flowing out of a contractor's site.  But I do feel an obligation to help get the rules back on track.

So I'm going to be more "constructive" in the future by offering some analyses of current construction sites, and offering some "tips" on erosion control practices.  The "Miss Manners" of mud. 

More effective BMPs

We have to adopt more effective filters.  The only really effective filter is a large, natural one that includes vegetation--a settling pond or basin, a rain garden, or vegetated swale.  These will be far more effective than an artificial one because they will trap all sizes of particles, and return the water to the ground; meanwhile their biological activity will help to neutralize pollutants.

Granted, these will be difficult to achieve on cramped sites.  But it should be relatively easy to export dirty runoff to the natural filters we build within a block or two.  Construction of these natural filters should planned as an integral part of the main project--and then put in place before the main project begins.

More effective EC plans
  • Put a lot more effort into them.
  • Creative, based on the unique features of the site
  • Able to handle major storms
  • Rely on natural filters rather than on ineffective fabric filters
  • Integrated EC--Erosion control design is part of the main project design (more on this later)
  • Contractor should be selected in part for their ability to carry out a good EC plan.(In the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway, S&L Underground & Trucking bid $500 on a very complex "Stormwater Control" line item.  Clearly they haven't thought this out.
Years of debate

For decades, government committees and citizens have debated the problem of construction site erosion.  Periodically, they issue reports that say "Crack down on construction site erosion."  "Enforce the rules at construction sites."  But there hasn't been enough improvement.  I do acknowledge that controlling erosion on construction sites isn't an easy job.  If it were, the problem would have been solved by now.

This means that construction sites are one of the last industries that are still casting their garbage into the public commons.... our lakes and streams.   Cracking down isn't enough (though it would help).  An overhaul is needed.