The best way to handle a catastrophic problem is to prevent it from the start.
This popular adage is true for most things, but especially situations where millions of dollars are at stake if something goes wrong. Mark Van Auken, a stormwater practice leader based in Raleigh, N.C., has dedicated his time to teaching municipalities the importance of assessing their stormwater asset system and taking cautionary measures so as to avoid serious problems in the future.
The program is called Stormwater Strategic Asset Management. It uses risk-based analysis to investigate all facets of a community’s current stormwater system; seek to minimize total cost of repair, maintenance and upkeep; and determine risk factors involved with each asset.
“The ultimate goal,” Van Auken said, “is to get communities to be able to know more about the assets they have within their current system and use that information to be more cost efficient. We’re also looking at what they can do to provide the level of service, safety and protection needed for their community.”
The first step, Van Auken said, is for each community to collect data on the pieces of the system it already has in place and record that data in a way that is helpful to researchers. A large variety of data is required to make informed decisions and includes, but is not limited to, diameter of pipes, type of material used, year of installation and maintenance records.
“When they start out, a lot of communities look at the stormwater assets and simply see physical condition,” Van Auken said. “We’re trying to emphasize not only looking at the physical condition, but the criticality of its location within the system.”
For example, Van Auken said a community could have a pipe that’s less than 10 years old that is in great shape condition- wise but sits in an area with a large stormwater flow and doesn’t have the capacity to handle it. Those are the sorts of situations asset management recognizes and works to correct before a massive failure occurs, costing cities money.
“We’re looking largely at the critical infrastructure the pipe impacts,” he said. “It makes more sense to make sure the assets in critical, dense locations that could affect thousands of people are in better shape than the ones that are in worse condition but impact a less populated area.”
In addition to infrastructure location and impact, cost, severity of effects if the system fails and environmental sensitivity are taken into consideration when recommending system upgrades or maintenance.
The asset management and risk analysis method Van Auken teaches is starting to be more widely used in communities and, when done correctly, assists city governments in deciding which issues to invest time and money into.
“It’s very beneficial for communities, if they’re going to be doing an evaluation, to develop a hierarchy that starts with the community at large and breaks it down into smaller subgroups,” Van Auken said. “By having a hierarchy, it gives municipalities the ability to look at material types, location — any single item they want to (related) to assets — and make evaluations and comparisons to see what your problems are and how to fix them.”
However, Van Auken isn’t blind to limiting factors in municipalities, mainly cost.
“I know it all comes down to cost,” he said. “The upfront planning and being able to spend a little bit of initial money to look at how to set up this risk analysis system, and then being able to set aside a little money to inspect your system each year is no easy task.”
Van Auken encourages cities to do what they can within their means, providing details on how to, at the minimum, set a framework for stormwater asset management in the future.
Any interested municipalities have the opportunity to join Van Auken’s latest project — a collaborative research project across cities looking to assess their stormwater management systems titled, “Stormwater Strategic Asset Management: Tools and Guidelines.” For more information, contact the Water Environment & Reuse Foundation at www.werf.org.