CHANGING THE LEGISLATIVE PARADIGM (or KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid)
The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) was the
agency which, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, handled regulation,
management, conservation, compliance and enforcement of a wide range of environmental and natural
resource activities in the state of Florida,
United States. It performed a regulatory role, relying on air and water
quality standards and waste management regulations. It was specifically
tasked with the goals of:
keeping Florida’s waters clean
keeping Florida’s air clear of pollutants
keeping Florida’s land free from contamination
In the 1950’s and 1960’s the water quality in
the Bay area was starting to degrade. The Department of Health made up
requirements for cleaning up sewage from homes, including septic systems
required in lieu of direct discharge. This improved the water quality,
but it still was getting bad. Scuba diving in Tampa Bay was impossible,
visibility was nonexistent. I put in one time near Oldsmar. After a 15
minute swim (seeing nothing and getting stung by jellyfish) I struggled
out and walked a half mile around a small bay back to where I started. I
could not go back the way I came across the water, it was too nasty.
The second source of
pollution in our bays was rainwater runoff, at the time it was not
restricted at all. Everything from oil being dumped into our storm
sewers to fertilizer was finding its way into the bays.
In 1976 the DER came up with requirements for cleaning storm
Stormwater entering the bay includes a huge load of material that nature
tries to eliminate. As rainfall travels over roofs and the ground, it
picks up various contaminants including soil particles and other sediment, heavy
compounds, animal waste, and oil and grease. The materials require oxygen to
decompose; this is called the biological oxygen demand (BOD). Stormwater
contains high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus.
Excessive release to the environment can lead to a buildup of nutrients
(the dying of the water body). The nutrients can in turn encourage the
overgrowth of algae,
and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). This may
cause an algal bloom, a rapid growth in the population of
algae. The algae numbers are unsustainable and eventually most of them
die. The decomposition of the algae by bacteria uses up so much of the
oxygen in the water that most or all of the animals die, which creates
more organic matter for the bacteria to decompose. In addition to
causing deoxygenation, some algal species produce toxins.
The requirements the DER came up with for treating stormwater were
extensive. I attended a public meeting in Tallahassee where their
solution was presented. We sat at a table, about 30 of us, with the DER
personnel at the head of the table giving a presentation using an
overhead projector. The hour long presentation was amazing. The
scientists working for the State had come up with an extremely
complicated plan. The plan was to have every site that people wanted to
develop (from a convenience store on the corner to a 1500 acre project)
include a stormwater treatment plant.
The project engineer was to prepare a report to be submitted to the
State. Included in the report were the following (but not limited to):
A) The amount of material coming out of the air and
deposited on the roof of all proposed homes and other buildings which
the rain will dislodge (dust, grit, etc.) and the resulting biological
oxygen demand (BOD) load that it would produce.
B) The amount of fertilizer which the homeowners or
businesses would apply to any vegetation, the amount of nitrogen and
phosphorus the fertilizer would contain, how much of it would run off,
and the resulting BOD load that it would produce.
C) The amount of cat, dog, wildlife, and other
animal waste that would be deposited on the entire project, the amount
of nitrogen and phosphorus the waste would contain and the resulting BOD
load that it would produce.
D) The amount of oil and grease that would drip off
of vehicles and would be deposited in their coming and goings, and the
resulting BOD load that it would produce.
E) The amount of oils and material that would leach
out of asphalt and the resulting BOD load that it would produce.
F) The amount of oil, food, and other materials
people would dump from changing the oil in their car and in general
discharge from their cars and the resulting BOD load that it would
All of the above would have to be taken into
account using sophisticated integrals in order to design the stormwater
treatment plant. The mathematical formulas were amazingly complex.
The design of the stormwater treatment plant would most likely
take weeks or months to prepare, the State would then review the design,
come up with a response, the engineer would have to redo the plan and
resubmit it, as many times as the State desired, a very costly and time
The stormwater treatment plant itself would be a complex of huge
containers for grit removal and treatment basins, air pumps for aerating
the stormwater, stilling basins, etc., all needing electrical power to
function. The State would have inspectors to insure that the treatment
plants were operating properly. For a typical subdivision this would
cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The audience was aghast, to put it mildly. After the presentation, the
people around the table were asked for their comments. One gentleman
said, “If you [the State] have a problem with water quality, YOU fix
it, I am not going to.” Another said, “I am not going to build such
a plant, I will sell you a piece of my property and you can build
whatever you want.” Others were concerned about the feasibility of
treating the immense amount of water which runs off during our intense
rainstorms. In general, no one was impressed with the proposed
requirements and were resistant to do anything of the sort.
When it came around to my turn to speak, I stood up and said, “I have
run enough SWMM, STORM, and HEC2 computer programs to know that 94% of
all the pollutants are washed off of a site during a 1” rainfall
event. If, instead of a treatment plant, we collect this runoff in a
retention/percolation area, the sun will disintegrate the phenols (oils) and the
plants will take up the nitrogen and phosphorus, thus taking care of all
My solution would require the developer to give up some land to catch
any debris, oils, and all of the pollutants, but it would not have to
include sophisticated equipment to treat the water.
My solution was adopted. The State’s solution was scrapped, it was
withdrawn. There is no way that the State’s solution would have gone
as far as mine. The idea that a treatment plant would sit empty for
days, weeks, or even months, and then be hit with thousands of gallons
(in some cases millions of gallons) of water and be expected to treat
that water is crazy. The legislation had already been drawn up and sent
out, we were just supposed to say “OK” and then it would become law.
I was proud to say that I had stepped in and provided a simple and
effective alternative. No local official would have been able to
understand the complex report, and it would have been easy to fudge the
data. Not with my solution! A fifth grader could do the calculation.
My solution is a very simple calculation to solve how much volume would
be needed for the retention pond, ½ inch of water over the site to be
developed. No complex formulas. In fact my solution has been adopted in
Georgia and other States.
Over the past 40 years, even though the DER no longer exists, the
solution was adopted by all of the State of Florida. In this area SFWMD
has taken it up and enforces it, trash and pollutants have been stopped
at the source. Our bays and streams have immeasurably been improved. The
sea grasses have returned, the fish and aquatic animals have returned as
There is no telling how much this simple solution
has improved the environment. The developers have complied (obviously
somewhat reluctantly), and the State was somewhat miffed that they were
not able to create more bureaucracy, but in 40 years the only change
that was made was the additional requirement that the water percolate in
72 hours so mosquitoes do not multiply. Otherwise the solution has been
kept intact! All engineers and developers know the requirement; it is
now in the fabric of the design process.
My friends jokingly said that I should put up a sign by retention areas
around the State; the sign would say “Complements of John Herrick,
your environment is safer.”