Five Ways that Starting a Regional Stormwater Management Utility is Like a Job Search

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How many times have you changed jobs?

Counting high-school or college part-time work, chances are you’ve been out in the job market at least a few times. And as you gained more experience—and as the stakes have become higher—the job search required specific skills and investments of time and energy if you hoped to find the career you wanted.

The same considerations of time, energy, and experience went into the creation of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s regional stormwater management program. Here are five similarities between our program’s beginnings and a successful job hunt.

1) Map it out. Embarking on a job search with no expectations or map to reach your goal will get you lost early. The same goes for stormwater management. Let’s look at a regional system such as the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s 56 communities and 400-mile regional stormwater system.

Our regional stormwater management fee is based on properties’ impervious area. Driveways, rooftops, parking lots, decks, outdoor storage areas, and other hard surfaces across 350,000 parcels in its service area are factored in to set stormwater fees. Those calculations are based on aerial photography from a variety of sources including our own specialized GIS tools, site inspections, customer verifications, and more. The link between our maps and our billing is critically important and must be reliable.

2) Priorities, people. Where do you plan to invest your time? What will you pursue, how will you respond, and exactly how much time and money are you able to commit?

It is important to determine what your program is and is not going to be. This takes time, extensive conversation with staff and external partners, and clarity.

Since 2007, we held or participated in nearly 200 meetings to evaluate options, best practices, and sources of revenue. We’re off to a good start and learning more along the way. We meet with community groups, officials, and interested customers through site visits, council meetings, and public forums. We are also kicking off five Watershed Advisory Committees to give us better perspective and encourage dialogue on a local level.

3) Broaden your reach. A successful job search begins with a strong network of relationships and communication. A successful stormwater program must include the same.

We have done our best to share the progress of our planning and rollout, including all the details of lengthy legal challenges. Once we received the green light, we prepared materials and messages for our customers and increased our ability to respond to new concerns quickly. Beyond communication with customers, relationships with partner organizations like local watershed groups helped get important information deeper into individual communities. 

4) Experience matters. It can be disheartening to hear you are overqualified for a new position. When it comes to regional stormwater management, an organization can rarely be overqualified.

The Sewer District has a long history in regional wastewater and stormwater management. Formed in 1972 and tasked with four primary responsibilities—managing three regional wastewater treatment plants, operating an extensive interceptor sewer network, addressing combined sewer overflows, and developing a plan for regional stormwater management—we have made huge strides in all these areas.

We studied stormwater problems like stream flooding, erosion, and poor water quality that have plagued our service area for a long time. In 2010, we moved forward with amendments to our Code of Regulations to allow for a new funding mechanism—the impervious surface fee—to cover the costs of regional stormwater management. After years of study, planning, and communication, and several years of litigation, we moved ahead with our new program in 2013.

We had the benefit of knowing how to manage a regional system and work with our member communities. We also learned many important lessons from other stormwater utilities that had gone before us. With more than 1,000 communities across the country with stormwater-management programs, there were tremendous opportunities to learn.
 

5) Learn and adjust along the way. Adapt, learn from others, and always discuss. It’s something we all have to do, both professionally and personally.

In just the first year of our program, we understood this would be the case and we were prepared to adjust and be flexible. We have daily conversations about a range of stormwater topics, such as the details of who gets stormwater fee credits, how properties are classified, and how we’ll ensure consistent operation and maintenance of 400 miles of regional streams.

In discussions with other stormwater utilities—like Denver Urban Drainage and Flood Control District, and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District whose services, regional challenges and size were similar to ours—this was a common theme. We learn from the experiences from others, but as they arise in our own unique ways, we prepared and are evaluating opportunities for improvement, especially in our billing and credit application processes.
 

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District serves more than one million residents in 61 communities, providing wastewater and stormwater management through innovation, fiscal responsibility, and community partnerships. They have served the region since 1972 and treat more than 200 million gallons of water every day.  For more information on the Sewer District’s stormwater program, contact them at stormwater@neorsd.org or follow them on Twitter @neorsd.

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