The Messy Business of Maintaining BMPs
Who's responsible for best management practices?
Jake Jacobson remembers when things were much worse.
Business owners, homeowners’ associations, developers, and even
municipalities would neglect the stormwater best management practices,
or BMPs, operating on their land. And this neglect would spread to
everything from retention ponds to continuous deflective separation
Jacobson saw some filters neglected so severely that they’d be
completely clogged with plastic bags, soggy newspapers, and forgotten
fast food containers. He’d see retention ponds overgrown with invasive
species, trash littering their banks.
In the most extreme of these cases, the BMPs were no longer even moderately filtering the stormwater that ran through them.
Today, though? Things have gotten better, says Jacobson, general
manager with Escondido, CA–based Downstream Services, a firm that works
with commercial, residential, and municipal clients to clean and
maintain stormwater devices.
Associations, business owners, and public works department employees
still don’t do a perfect job of maintaining the BMPs on their
properties. But they are at least aware that ponds, filters, and other
devices need periodic inspections and cleanings, Jacobson notes. And
with the increasing threat of heavy fines from federal, state, and local
agencies, these owners are becoming far less apt to ignore these
“The developers and builders that have been required to install BMPs
as part of their projects are now informing the associations or property
owners that they have to maintain these devices or they won’t work
properly,” he says. “We are starting to see that property management
firms are becoming better educated that these BMPs exist and are areas
of their responsibility. They understand now that they are responsible
for maintaining these.”
Jacobson isn’t alone. Other stormwater pros involved in the
installing and maintaining of stormwater devices agree that property
owners and municipal officials are placing a greater emphasis on
maintaining the BMPs installed across the country.
The big problem, though, is that homeowners’ associations, private
businesses, and private property owners are often unprepared to maintain
their stormwater BMPs. It’s not that they don’t want to keep the
devices running well; they just don’t know how. Fortunately, there are
independent companies that will perform regular inspections and
maintenance duties for these owners. And, in another positive
development, more manufacturers of BMPs and municipal stormwater
agencies are holding classes and workshops dealing with maintenance
issues, giving owners the chance to learn how to properly care for their
detention ponds and proprietary stormwater management devices.
This is all a big step forward, and an important one. Engineers and
municipalities specify BMPs with the best of intentions, relying on them
to filter and clean the stormwater that drains into their bodies of
water. But if the entities responsible for the upkeep of these devices
don’t do their jobs—if they don’t order regular inspections and
cleaning, if they ignore signs of a malfunctioning filter—these bodies
of water can be threatened with sediment, chemicals, and other
pollutants washed into them after rainfalls.
It’s little surprise that BMPs are not always maintained properly.
Cleaning, inspecting, and maintaining stormwater BMPs is far from sexy
or glamorous. It’s just essential.
“This really is the unglamorous side of many of these proprietary
stormwater products,” says Gordon England, P.E., president of Stormwater
Solutions Inc. in Cocoa Beach, FL. “The engineers all like to build
these fancy BMPs. But no one thinks about the burden of some lonely
public works employee who has to maintain them. That is something that
engineers and designers should consider from the start of the design
A Mixed Bag
The stormwater professionals interviewed for this story agreed that
property owners, associations, and municipal officials today are more
committed to maintenance. But they also say that these folks still have
plenty of room for improvements.
Some municipalities do an excellent job of taking care of their BMPs,
say officials with the companies that specialize in maintaining the
devices. Others, though, still devote little to no effort toward
The same holds true for other property owners and homeowners’
associations, BMP maintenance companies say: Some do a great job with
upkeep. Others don’t.
The attention paid to maintenance also varies across the country.
Some states, such as Florida and California, have good reputations when
it comes to caring for their stormwater infrastructure and BMPs. Other
states do not.
“It all varies so much from city to city across the United States,”
England says. “It’s hard to say with any certainty just how much better
or worse maintenance of the BMPs has gotten.”
One reason for this is that maintenance usually is handled in two
significantly different ways. Often, homeowners’ associations, private
businesses, or individual property owners are supposed to handle the
upkeep, inspections, and maintenance of the BMPs on their properties.
This is the case, for example, for the retention ponds at many housing
subdivisions across the country. After the developer leaves, it’s up to
the homeowners’ association to pay for the pond’s upkeep. Often, the
association hires an outside company to perform the work.
In other instances, cities or municipalities and their public works
departments handle the maintenance. This usually occurs with filters,
proprietary devices, and retention ponds on public property. There are
times, too, when municipalities may take over the maintenance duties on
some BMPs located in housing subdivisions and other private lands if
municipal officials recognize that the homeowners’ association or
business responsible for them is doing a poor job.
That later scenario, though, happens rarely, England says. “In my
experience, the majority of cities and counties leave it upon the
association, the developers, or the owner of the convenience store to
maintain the pipes, the ponds, that sort of thing,” he says.
There are regional differences, though, England adds. He lives and
works in Florida, where residents tend to be more concerned about the
health of their environment. This concern naturally filters down to the
maintenance of BMPs; clean, safe water, after all, is a major concern to
Florida and its booming tourist industry.
“Many of the people here in Florida are environmentally conscious,”
England notes. “They are trying to do the right thing. They are
bombarded by newspaper stories and radio shows about taking care of our
natural resources, our wetlands. There is a big environmental movement
England formerly served as an environmental consultant with a county
agency in the state. He remembers inspecting hundreds of thousands of
BMPs during this time. The vast majority of these had been cared for
properly, he says.
And the smaller number of BMPs that weren’t being cleaned or
maintained correctly? Most times, intentional neglect wasn’t the issue.
Most of the owners responsible for the care weren’t aware of the right
way to service the BMP. England estimates that in 80% of these cases,
the county was easily able to convince people to do whatever had to be
done to maintain the systems.
He can’t vouch for whether this is the case in the majority of the
country, though. “In other parts of the country where the environmental
movement is not as strong, it does get more difficult to motivate the
homeowners’ associations and developers to maintain their ponds and
systems,” he says.
A Budget Issue
The Lake County Stormwater Management Commission provides a good example
of the challenges that stormwater agencies face regarding BMP
maintenance. The agency, located in Lake County, IL—which features some
of the wealthier suburbs of Chicago—also shows how stormwater
commissions can meet those challenges.
The commission does not have a maintenance program. Mike Warner, its
executive director, says that the budget afforded to his agency isn’t
large enough to support one.
Because of this, the commission, whenever it approves a stormwater
BMP for a private or public development, inserts language into the
project package spelling out exactly how the BMPs will be maintained and
the entity responsible for handling this task.
Before a developer qualifies for a permit, the agreement with the
stormwater commission must also point out an adequate source of funding
to implement maintenance tasks in perpetuity, Warner says. It may be as
simple as spelling out what percentage of homeowners’ association dues
will be used for maintenance needs.
“Say we are working on a flood-mitigation project. We ensure up front
that a local homeowners’ association or a local unit of government is
willing to take on long-term maintenance of the BMP,” Warner explains.
“We bring that concept into the project early, as we develop and design
it and agree on a project’s scope. The maintenance and upkeep of BMPs is
then brought through into a legal arrangement within the agreements we
Once the commission and the developer agree on a maintenance plan, it
is recorded with the subdivision documents. Whenever someone then pulls
up the plat of subdivision from the county recorder’s office, he easily
can access the maintenance plan.
The commission recently tackled a detention pond retrofit project,
installing the BMP in an existing subdivision in the suburb of Lake
Zurich, IL. Before agreeing to help install the new pond, the commission
and the village reached an agreement on the mowing schedule, on when
re-plantings would need to be done, and on how often the association
would spray the pond with herbicides to kill off invasive plants.
Like all such agreements, this one includes measures that the
commission can take to make sure that the village is maintaining the
pond properly. The commission’s employees can perform regular
inspections to search for problems. And if they find any? Usually,
Warner says, the problems are discussed and the commission and the
village, developers, or homeowners’ associations come to a mutually
acceptable agreement on what needs to be done to improve maintenance of
the BMP or repair it if more serious damage has been done.
Like other stormwater commissions, Lake County’s also emphasizes
public education. The commission holds regular workshops for homeowners’
associations that detail exactly how they should be caring for their
stormwater BMPs. This year, the commission will hold three such
workshops, which include advice from stormwater experts, a look at past
case studies, and a summary of resources that are available for
homeowners’ associations that are determining the best way to maintain
their subdivisions’ BMPs.
Warner says that the workshops have made a significant difference for
property owners previously confused on how best to maintain their
stormwater devices. And more people across his county—whether they be
developers, homeowners, or municipal officials—are aware of how
important it is to make sure that BMPs are working properly and doing
the job for which they were installed.
“The level of awareness has been increasing,” Warner says. “The
number of companies that offer consulting in this area has been rising.
The number of landscaping companies that specialize in this area is
growing. People now have a better resource pool to pull from. We’ve seen
a much better response since the early days when wetland mitigation
projects were first being built. The large part of those would end up
covered with invasive species or would turn into open-water areas. The
functionality of the BMP was lost. We are now seeing a trend toward more
knowledgeable and responsible parties. We are seeing better success
And if the commission does find problems during one of its
inspections, it has a system ready for such an occurrence. During an
inspection, the commission invites along at least one person who
represents the party responsible for the BMP. That way, the inspection
becomes a joint inspection process, rather than just the commission
levying field judgments on its own. Most times, if the inspection turns
up a problem, the commission and the party responsible for the BMP can
reach an agreement on a remedy onsite.
Typical problems include clogged inlets or outlets, which are easy to
fix, Warner says. A more difficult problem to remedy might be an influx
of invasive species. In that case, Warner says, the person responsible
for the BMP might choose to hire a landscape-maintenance firm to tackle
the problem or may schedule a subdivision cleanup day to remove the
No matter the problem, the commission has always managed to find an amicable solution, Warner says.
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve never been to court in one of these
situations,” he notes. “We have always figured a way to solve these
problems without having to resort to the legal route.”
A Helping Hand
Public works department officials could do a better job maintaining the
BMPs in their regions if they didn’t also have to worry so much about
handling paperwork, developing stormwater management plans, or answering
the phones. It’s this realization that more than two and a half years
ago led to the formation of Gloucester County Stormwater Management.
Based in Clarksboro, NJ, and run through the Gloucester County
Improvement Authority, the stormwater management program provides
assistance, when it makes economic sense, to the 24 municipalities
within its boundaries that are working to satisfy the stormwater
requirements of the New Jersey Pollutant Discharge Elimination System,
or NJPDES. The goal of NJPDES is to make sure that all the waters in New
Jersey meet water-quality standards for their specific uses. This
requires municipalities to control nonpoint sources of pollution from
Gloucester’s central stormwater management program doesn’t tackle the
inspection and repair work that its individual municipalities face when
dealing with BMPs. But it does handle much of the administrative duties
that would otherwise distract municipalities from these more important
jobs, says George Strachan, administrator with the Gloucester County
For instance, the management program has its own central Web site, www.gcstormwater.com,
which provides information to both members of the public and public
works officials. The program also has purchased, with the help of a
grant from the state, handheld data loggers, which it is passing out to
public works employees to help municipalities take advantage of the
still-emerging technology of geographic information systems. With the
handheld data loggers, public works pros can enter information
electronically about the size, location, and age of their
municipalities’ stormwater BMPs. They also can enter, or call up,
information about each BMP’s last inspection date.
Gloucester County Stormwater Management also sends out countywide
mailings about stormwater issues and provides a central agency to handle
citizen phone calls. Perhaps most importantly, the stormwater
management program sends its representatives to the various permitting
agencies and municipal boards to lobby for specific stormwater
management programs and BMPs on behalf of the government bodies they are
“We are helping with the administrative and coordination efforts,”
Strachan says. “We couldn’t take over their responsibilities when it
came to maintaining these BMPs. But we could do some of the
administrative work for them. We can do the work more efficiently in a
cost-effective way using economies of scale. The individual public works
agencies are not drafting their own stormwater management plans. They
are not responsible for going to the planning boards or going in front
of the municipalities. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you
have a big town, or even a small town without a lot of resources, it
The program also gives municipalities an edge in making sure that the
BMPs in their areas still are functioning properly, and that their
owners, both private and public, are maintaining them correctly.
Strachan says that it’s gradually gotten easier to convince people of
the importance of properly caring for the stormwater devices on their
“It’s really been coming onto the radar screen for municipalities
with the greater enforcement of the permits that we’ve seen,” he says.
“We set up this program to get ahead of the curve to make sure that
these issues were being addressed in a cost-effective manner. As with
most states, property taxes here in New Jersey are a big problem. Any
dollar we can save at the local level can be used in other areas. And
that doesn’t even factor in the cost of the time and energy we are
saving for local municipalities.”
Meeting a Need
John Moll, chief executive officer of Lawrenceville, GA–based
CrystalStream Technologies, knows all about the challenges that
businesses, municipalities, and homeowners’ associations face when
trying to properly maintain and clean stormwater BMPs. His company not
only produces BMPs but also runs its own division dedicated to cleaning
and maintaining stormwater devices. The company’s Storm Systems Services
division has so far performed about 4,000 cleanings of stormwater BMPs,
And though it’s true that municipalities and private entities have
grown more familiar with the importance of stormwater devices, it’s
equally true that these private and public groups still have much to
learn about how to properly maintain them, he says.
“The number-one problem we saw in stormwater quality was that no one
was maintaining anything,” Moll notes. “We’d ask people, ‘How do you
clean these things?’ And they had nothing. Now, it’s gotten better. But
there is still a lot of work to be done.”
One of the problems, Moll says, is that manufacturers do a good job
of designing BMPs. They don’t, though, always consider how difficult it
may be to clean their devices.
“Many of the manufacturers have never given a thought to cleaning,”
he says. “It’s almost impossible to get into some of these devices to
clean them properly—is now and always will be.”
Jacobson, from Downstream Services, sees many of the same problems
repeated over and over again when his company inspects stormwater
devices. Often, developers will overestimate the capabilities of a
particular BMP. Perhaps they will install a filter in a housing
development and expect it to catch everything. A better solution might
be to install those filters but also to put in a clarifier and a CDS
unit as a secondary protective measure, Jacobson says, something that he
refers to as a tree of protection.
Other times, owners assume they will stay in compliance simply by
cleaning the BMPs—or scheduling a cleaning—every year or every six
months. Problem is, some BMPs don’t need that much cleaning, depending
on the type of stormwater device and its location, Jacobson says, while
others may need cleaning much more frequently.
As an example, Jacobson points to filters placed
alongside a city greenbelt. City workers mow the greenbelt frequently
and are out trimming trees often, too. That BMP is going to require
frequent cleanings to handle all the trimmings and grass clippings, with
the city perhaps needing to clean it every month. If that same filter,
though, were working in an asphalt parking lot with little landscaping
surrounding it, it might need to be inspected only once every six
months, maybe before and after the region’s wet season.
“I think people are doing a better job maintaining these BMPs than
they have in the past,” Jacobson says. “But there is still a need for
more public education and outreach. People have to realize that they
can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue. Every BMP, every
situation, is unique.”
Author's Bio: Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.