County's new stormwater manager faces daunting challenges

After 27 years working in Montgomery County's Department of Environmental Protection, Jim Caldwell left to try something new, taking a management-level job in 2007 at a manufacturing facility for gelato ingredients.

"What I found is I kind of didn't have a passion for gelato like some people do," Caldwell said in a recent interview. "I like local government."

Last year, after spending two years running his own environmental consulting business, Caldwell, 57, got the chance to return to local government — this time in Howard, his home county.

Caldwell, a longtime Mt. Airy resident, had been serving on the county's Environmental Sustainability Board when Josh Feldmark, director of the county's Office of Sustainability told him about a new position the county had created to manage the county's efforts to combat stormwater runoff.

Caldwell applied for the job, and was chosen from among some 60 applicants. He began the $72,000-a-year job Oct. 24.

"He understands the issue of stormwater as well if not better than anybody I've ever met, including myself," Feldmark said.

Ned Tillman, chairman of the Environmental Sustainability Board, said he served with Caldwell on the sustainability board since 2008 and before that on a commission County Executive Ken Ulman had formed to study environmental issues.

"He's certainly qualified," Tillman said of Caldwell's new role. "It's kind of lucky for us because he certainly dealt with all these issues in his job over at Montgomery County."

Minus the short stint in the gelato manufacturing industry, Caldwell, who has a master's degree in environmental management from American University, has spent his entire career working on water quality issues and programs aimed at protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Stormwater management, he said, is an important part of cleaning up the Bay and keeping it clean. But it's not an easy task.

"It's going to take money," Caldwell said. "It's going to take innovative thought, and it's going to take the entire community entering into the solution."

Caldwell's job, in a nutshell, is to pull all those pieces together and make sure the county continues to make strides in reducing its storm water runoff.

A few months into the job, Caldwell has spent a lot of his time meeting people, making connections with community groups and other government agencies, and researching storm water management efforts elsewhere that could work in Howard.

"I'm still collecting all the puzzle pieces," Caldwell said.

Once all the pieces have been collected, they need to be able to fit together to meet federal mandates, which limit how much nitrogen, phosphorus, sediments and other pollutants are allowed to run off into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

Caldwell said he — and the county — face three main challenges in meeting those mandates.

• Gearing up government

Right now, Caldwell said, at least five or six different parts of county government have a role to play in Howard's storm water management efforts.

Feldmark said Caldwell's internal challenge is to take all the work the various government agencies and departments have done and "bring that together in a much more comprehensive program … getting a handle on it all and getting everyone to move forward in the same direction."

And even though Howard County has already done a lot of work, Caldwell said not everyone is prepared for what is to come from the federal mandates.

"That's not a negative thing about this government," he said. "(We just have) "to help everybody inside the government to realize the challenge and to be committed to it and not get frustrated by it."

• Finding funding

Caldwell said meeting the mandates will not be cheap. County estimates released earlier this year showed it could cost between $445 million and $885 million in the next eight to 13 years.

The problem, Caldwell explained, is the mandates are coming from the top down but the money is expected to be found from the bottom up, and that puts a lot of pressure on the counties, who have faced budget struggles since the recession began.

"Environmental stuff is usually at the bottom of the barrel," Caldwell said.

Howard County, however, is better off than most jurisdictions because Ulman has set aside money for storm water initiatives. For example, Ulman included $10 million in his fiscal year 2012 capital budget to pay for stormwater facility upgrades, stream and watershed improvements, and retrofits to existing facilities to harvest rain water and store it for later reuse.

The government is still studying funding alternatives, looking at how other communities have raised money to pay for storm water management. What many communities have done, Caldwell said, is created a utility fund that taxpayers have to pay into.

Even if that's not the solution for Howard, Caldwell said taxpayers will have to contribute and "it's going to be a noticeable increase."

• Convincing the community

The community will have to do more than just contribute its share of funding. Residents will have to actively participate in the efforts to reduce stormwater runoff.

"Stormwater is not as clear as an issue as many of the other environmental issues that we deal with," Feldmark said. "Getting folks to buy into it, understand what the issue is and getting everyone to do their part is a monumental task."

The key to making that happen, Caldwell said, is outreach and education. And while that's a part of his job, he can't do it alone.

"There clearly needs to be more community engagement through homeowners association or churches, where there are some very good presentations put together trying to explain the problem," Caldwell said.

After it rains, storm water runs along roofs, lawns and streets, collecting pollutants, such as salt, fertilizer, dog feces and more before it reaches the storm water drains, which connect to local streams.

"People have to realize that their connection with the Bay is the stream behind their house," Caldwell said.

The whole concept of stormwater management, he explained, is creating ways for "the rain water to soak in as close to the source as it came from as possible." That concept, Caldwell acknowledged, is hard for people to understand until they see it through some kind of demonstration.

The simplest things people can do to control runoff, Caldwell said, is avoid using a lot of fertilizer on their lawns, stop littering, disconnect their rain spouts to run over the lawn first so the ground absorbs some of the water before it hits the drains.

"Because stormwater is so nebulous, and it comes from everywhere, it's really a behavior change thing," he said.

The best example of a successful environmental movement to change behavior is recycling, Caldwell said.

"That's what we have to go through with stormwater," he said. We (have to) get people to understand there's a problem, want to be part of the solution, and then government has to work with them to make it easier and easier."

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