Gravel tracking pads are important for your health

Gravel tracking pads are required at nearly every construction site.  They are intended to keep the tires of trucks entering and leaving the site from getting muddy, then tracking that mud into the streets.

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.

Sweeping is another way to reduce muddy tracks that's required at every site, but seldom enforced.  Sweeping isn't very effective unless it's combined with water. Even then, the mud adheres to the pavement.

Nevertheless, we should enforce sweeping when the day is done, because it serves as a backup to the gravel pads. The gutters below sites 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 a big surprise (for me) from an EPA study I found. 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 on W. Gillman St. 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.

A truck with 22 tires visits the Rawson site.  You can see this gravel pad at the State St end is too short for this truck. 7/27

The other entrance to the Rawson/Tri-North sites:
No pad at all, lots of traffic, dust and dirt everywhere--wasn't cleaned up at end of day.

The gravel pad at the Tri-North site on Gillman--short and very dirty. 7/27.
*  Gravel tracking pads are required to be 50' long.  Ask your Alder why this is never enforced.


An exploration down "Old Middleton Creek" in far west Madison

On August 24, Tim Heath and I took a ramble down a drainage way from near his house on Old Middleton Rd.  Tim is a retired biochemist who worked in the Pharmacy Dept. at the UW, Madison.

I'll call the waterway "Old Middleton Creek," because of the prairie and three settling ponds on City property on the west side of Old Middleton Rd.

The ponds recently came to my attention, because 200 trees were cut for construction of two of the ponds--and then, after heavy rain, one of the ponds nearly overflowed before it was finished.  If it had overflowed, a large sediment spill into Lake Mendota would have resulted.  I wanted to see where the sediment would have gone.

We descended from Stonefield Rd along a lovely grassy swale, past a restored prairie on a hillside.

Then we plunged into some woods, where there are trails. 

Soon, we came out near the first sediment pond.  Constructed some years ago, it is now surrounded by lovely prairie flowers.  There's a trail all the way around.

Below the first pond, we passed between two ponds under construction, where 200 trees were cut. 

Below Old Middleton Rd, the way is mostly straight.

After the heavy rains, there was a good flow of fairly clear water. But patterns of vegetation indicate that during dry periods, the creek probably dries up entirely, or a best has only a trickle.Years ago, the channel was dredged in a straight line, with field stones piled on either side.  Now, it is heavily wooded, all the way to Lake Mendota.  In a few places, we had to climb over or under downed trees.

View down creek close to the Lake.  It's mostly quite shallow until after you cross Camelot Dr.

The whole area below Old Middleton Rd seems pretty wild and forgotten, but it was quite disturbed, years ago.  So I wouldn't call it pristine by any measure.  Due to the fact that it dries up during dry weather, it doesn't make very good wildlife habitat, except for raccoons.

The water was fairly clear, without any odor of sewage, and there wasn't much litter.  But there was a lot of sediment washing in from surrounding roads.

A slide show of more photos here.
Photos of construction of settling pond.


Sediment problems at Forest Hills Cemetery

Update 7/27: Thanks to Jim Weinstock, Parks Operations Manager, for his speedy attention to this problem.

Sediment--from erosion, construction, and sanding of streets--is one of the more serous problems for water quality in Lake Wingra.  On July 22 after heavy rain, I checked the cemetery for sediment problems.

Eroding bank along drive in Forest Hills Cemetery.

Sediment from the bank flows down the gutter.

Sediment leaves the gutter and heads towards a gully leading to Lake Wingra.
In the maintenance area, there's an eroding pile of soil on the pavement.

Sediment from the pile runs across the parking, and into this gully.

Another gully to the W receives water from the Glenway Golf Course.

Still more runoff from the golf course joins the gully here. This would be an ideal place for a rain garden.

Equipment is housed right at the cemetery, so the rain garden could be built inexpensively.  All that's needed are a design, a basin built with that equipment, volunteers, material for a spillway, and some native woodland plants.

Trails below Glenway Golf Course are starting to erode rapidly.7/25

Who is responsible
Alder Brian L. Solomon  district10@cityofmadison.com
Kevin, Briski, Parks Superintendent, 266-4711
James Weinstock, Parks Operations Manager, 267-8804
Bill Schott, West Parks Maintenance Supervisor, 266-9214
Kevin Sorenson, Forest Hill Cemetery Manager, 266-4741
Laura Whitmore, Community Relations/Volunteer Coordinator, 266-5949 (To help organize volunteers for rain garden)

More photos of erosion in cemetery here.
Photos of trail erosion here.


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" Tim 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.

Tim Troester said: "...at 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.

#     #     #

*  A two-year rain event is defined as 2.9 inches in 24 hours.

** 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.


Citizen inspectors wanted for erosion control

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 send 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.


A fantasy of time travel to save our lakes

When I get frustrated about the sad state of our lakes, I sometimes daydream, and wonder....

What if I could travel back in time 150 years, to when Madison was a small town, before they dumped all that sewage in the lakes.  I have to imagine I could avoid the consternation caused when people learned I came from the future.

I imagine traveling back to that time and saying, "I'm from the future, and I'm here to warn you.... You're about to ruin these wonderful, pristine lakes. Here's what you could do to save them--much as they are now--for your great grand-children. Look--here's a photo of the stinking mess your actions are going to cause."

What would happen? People would probably keep on doing what they were doing.

They would say: "We don't believe you.... We don't want to change.... Who are you to come from the future, and tell us what to do?  My small actions couldn't possibly cause any harm.... It's that guy over there who is really doing the harm. This stuff about phosphorus in the lake--it's baloney!  You say you want more rules to protect the lake? We don't like rules, and we don't trust government. You must be a witch... burn him at the stake!"

But if I were really skillful, charismatic, and persistent--willing to spend the rest of my life in early Madison, well.... it's possible I might make a small difference.

How do I know? Because I tried this experiment. Yes, almost the same thing.  I went to the historic town of Harwich, MA, in Cape Cod, where there's an orphan state park, neglected and abused--but home to a beautiful, still-pristine pond.

Hawksnest Pond in Harwich, MA. Click to enlarge.

I've started to work with the people in Harwich, to save the pond called Hawksnest. But I'm seeing the response described above. Maybe there's a chance Hawksnest Pond can remain as it is. I hope so. But many of the people there are doing their best to turn it into Lake Mendota.

You can find out about Hawksnest Pond here:  Hawksnest needs to become a sister pond to Lake Wingra, so Madisonians can discover what clean water really is--that it's possible.

Otherwise, clean water could become a dim memory, like a wistful mural on the wall of some environmental center.

Message from Hawksnest: It's that band of natural vegetation all along the shore and streambanks that protects water quality.

Slide show of Hawksnest.

Erosion control plan for the Greenway--a critique

Since the ravine drains a basin above it, there is much more potential for erosion during a big storm, compared to the Edgewood Av construction site pictured below. The issue of planning for a big storm is what I want to discuss here.

I find that the plan is workable for light rain events, but completely inadequate for a large rainstorm (say over 1.75 inches). When I made this point in an exchange of emails, Lisa Coleman chose to ignore it. Based on this lack of reply, plus statements from Engineering staff, I believe the City has a policy of not designing for large storms, so as to keep costs to contractors (and hence the City) lower.

The City and contractors would rather pay for the additional gravel or soil to fill in the gullies--after a big storm happens--than pay for more robust erosion control measures.

Since most of the damage to the lakes occurs during large storms, I believe this policy can't be defended--since surveys show citizens are unhappy with the City's care for the lakes.

L. Mendota after large storm, late 1960s, by UW Engineering Dept.

Out of one side of their mouth, Engineering staff (and the Board of Public Works) say to people concerned about the lakes that they are trying like crazy to meet the 2013 mandated reduction by 40% of sediment to the lakes.  They told us at neighborhood meetings that "erosion control" was one of the two main reasons for the project.

But out of the other side of the mouth, they are saying to contractors: "It's OK to dump truckloads of sediment into the lakes when your erosion controls fail in a big storm. It just slips down the drain while people hunker down indoors. No one will notice."

This approach is so consistent that it must be policy. Who set this policy? Who will support it, once brought out of the closet?

It does seem a little wasteful to build elaborate erosion control measures, which just have to be dismantled when the construction is over. That's why I have advocated settling basins, rain gardens, and other watershed improvements, to be installed before a construction project begins. These erosion control measures will remain after construction is finished, to beautify the city and moderate future flooding.

You can read the full details of the erosion control plan, plus my critique, here.


Greenway construction--Hoping for good luck with the weather

Two contractors work on their "stormwater control" bid.
Click to enlarge.

S and L Underground and Trucking was the low bidder for the Hillcrest-Upland sanitary sewer project on Madison's near west side. Construction is scheduled to begin Oct. 4.

Many of the residents surrounding this project are upset about losing the 65 trees this project plans to eliminate.  So it's ironic that the low bidder for this project was the one that caused the uproar over damage to trees on Spaight Street last year.

In addition, "erosion control" has always been one of the objectives for this plan, so some neighbors want to ensure adequate plans are in place to protect Lake Mendota from muddy runoff.

Concerns about S & L Underground and Trucking

David Newby, one of the residents bordering the project, recently wrote to City Engineering:

There are concerns here about the low-bid contractor for the Greenway project.

Given the history of this contractor's behavior, is there evidence that he can do this complicated and delicate job? Can he fulfill the detailed specifications of what is to be done here, within the constraints as laid out in the bid (e.g. width of the work path, treatment of trees that are to be saved which are now close to the work path, type of stone to be used in the storm water channel)? And can he do it at the price he bid?

Engineering obviously worked hard here to give us a good plan for the Greenway and its problems. Does this contractor have the flexibility, the temperament, and the attention to detail to give us what we were promised here, and what the very detailed plans specify?

What we fear, of course, is that "mistakes will be made" (as just happened with Jon Nelson's hedges) - and once made (for example, the killing of mature trees, filling the ravine with the wrong rock, failing to effectively stem the erosion), the "mistakes" will be irreversible.

Erosion control--a challenge at this site

The ravine drains a basin upstream that's about half a mile long. It's the sole exit for all that stormwater. The force of rushing water will be concentrated in a narrow ravine.

If there's a major storm during construction, erosion will be difficult to control. There would be damage to the project (for which the contractor is liable), as well as damage to our lakes.

Of the four bidders, S&L was the lowest when it came to the line item of "stormwater control."

S&L Underground & Trucking     $500
Speedway Sand & Gravel         $2,000
Joe Daniels Construction         $3,000
R.G. Huston & Co.                  $4,121

Note that Speedway, with all their bungling of erosion control at the Edgewood project, was the second lowest bidder on this item.

Given the difficulty of stormwater control for this project, we wonder--did S&L give stormwater control any serious consideration at all? The round numbers for three of the contractors suggest wild guesses.

This contractor bears watching

There are new construction rules that levy penalties against contractors that cause unnecessary tree death.  But these rules may be difficult to enforce, unless we can prove the contractor violated the rules. 

Here's what residents bordering the greenway can do to help protect their trees and the lake:
  • Identify the valuable trees in your back yard, just outside the contruction fence, that you want to protect. 
  • Let "Friends of the Greenway" know you want to actively protect these trees.
  • Familiarize yourself with the tree protecftion rules the contractor has to follow.  We have a summary.
  • Watch for infractions of the rules (or make your back yard available to other observers)
  • Take photos (and notes) of any work you think is a violation of the rules.  Send them to this blog's editor.
  • Take photos of erosion during and after heavy rain events.
S&L Underground and Trucking may wish they had left this difficult spot alone.


A big storm during construction?

The planned Greenway construction has two justifications:
  • Reducing sediment to the lakes by from eroding banks, and
  • Sanitary sewer upgrade
In the process, some of the natural values of the Greenway will be destroyed for our lifetimes.

What if--during construction when so much soil is bare--we had a torrential downpour?  Enough soil could erode and be dumped in the lake to equal twenty years of normal erosion--compared to if the Greenway hadn't been fixed.

To avoid this disaster, heroic measures for sediment control need to be employed during this project.  I'll be discussing those plans in a posting soon.

Storm of June 21 at Edgewood Av

By looking at Edgewood construction, you can get some idea of what a storm can do.  Edgewood Av is similar to our Greenway in that it has substantial slope. 

The difference is that Edgewood Av has no basin above to gather stormwater.  It's simply a hill, about two blocks from the top to the bottom.  All the runoff comes from the rain that falls on the bare street.

In contrast, the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway has half a mile of basin above feeding into it.  Moreover, rather than being a flat street, it has a V-shaped profile, concentrating the force of running water.

The storm shown here dumped 1.75" of rain.  Storms of 7-10" are possible.

Edgewood Av, June 21. Photo by Jamie Saul.  Click on photos to enlarge.

Above/below: Gullys in Edgewood Av. caused by the storm.  Photos by Jon Standridge.

Sunset Village Creek during storm of June 21

Sunset Village Creek upstream of Greenway at the park, June 21. By Tim Kessenich.

Sunset Village Creek exiting 32" pipe at Tim Kessenich property, June 21. Photo by Kessenich.


Restoring a creek in Montana

An encouraging story from the New York Times.

"A couple of weeks ago, I walked along a spring creek in the upper Madison Valley, just south of the town of Ennis, Mont. As my guide, Jeff Laszlo, explained, the creek is one of the unnamed tributaries of the Madison River, fed by innumerable springs along the valley’s rich bottomland. The creek meanders for miles before it reaches the Madison, gaining water, providing spawning grounds for fish and invaluable wetland habitat for birds. I looked on in disbelief, because the section we were hiking — nearly eight miles of cold, clear waters — did not exist before 2005."  More