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.

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