Evaluating COVID-19 Impacts on MS4 Communities

During the latter part of 2020, when our communities were coping with many COVID-19 closures, delays, and restrictions, PEC’s water staff were curious to understand how the pandemic restrictions impacted municipal stormwater program implementation. We were particularly interested in evaluating the impacts to the 1000 + communities across the commonwealth who hold Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (also known as MS4) permits. We developed and distributed a survey in early 2021 that asked about impacts to various stormwater program components, from education to post-construction stormwater management. We also included questions about unintended impacts, both negative and positive.

When PEC first initiated the survey through our partner networks, we soon learned that researchers at Penn State University’s (PSU) Stormwater Living Lab had also developed and distributed a similar survey to the same target audience. Upon learning about our mutual interest in this topic, we joined forces, tweaked our questions, and redistributed the survey to the MS4 permittees in the spring to early summer of 2021.

Initial Findings

Results from the 123 respondents indicated that there were a wide variety of impacts reported across Pennsylvania’s MS4 community landscape. A review of our snapshot and the details included in our longer report revealed that the pandemic caused delays, construction slowdowns, financial uncertainty, and the shifting of resources and priorities. We learned that communities also adjusted and adapted to the changing and challenging circumstances brought on by the pandemic.

The pandemic caused delays, construction slowdowns, financial uncertainty, and the shifting of resources and priorities.

It was clear that those responding displayed overall resiliency, classifying impacts as slight to moderate.
Impacts were primarily related to components requiring more in-person participation such as education/outreach and public participation/involvement.

The top 3 reasons cited for impacts were: staff priorities shifted, inability to hold in-person activities, and adherence to health and safety protocols.

Although our survey responses were about 10% of the total number of Pennsylvania’s MS4 communities, we felt the information was valuable and informative to share, perhaps as a way to spark more conversation. The survey results were first presented at an online webinar, part of the PSU Extension’s Water Cooler Talk series in July of 2021, and more recently via the release of our report and snapshot summary. The two documents provide more information on our process, the respondents, findings for each of the survey questions, and additional recommendations for further study. We hope to continue to explore impacts and have set up an online comment form to capture responses to the report’s findings.

Unintended Benefits
Read the report here.

Our mutual interests created the opportunity for a new collaboration between PEC and the wonderful researchers at the PSU Stormwater Living Lab, including the Lab’s Director, Dr. Hong Wu. This unique facility utilizes Penn State’s multi-campus network to create a living laboratory for Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) research, education, and innovation. We found great alignment in PEC’s work, which stresses the importance of policy and practices that encourage the use of GSI to decrease pollutants entering our waterways and manage the rainfall events that are increasing in both intensity and frequency.

We hope this report sparks continued discussion on the benefits of strong and resilient GSI-focused stormwater management programs and the continued resources needed to support our communities in their efforts to meet and exceed their stormwater program goals. In addition to Dr. Wu, PEC extends a big thank you to Penn State Landscape Architecture alum, Yiru Zhang, PEC’s Aminah McNulty (U. Penn City Planning and Landscape Architecture Graduate Student), Paul Racette (Watersheds Program Manager), Josh Raulerson (Communications Director) and Sally Tarhi (Development Manager) for their help in reviewing and designing the report and snapshot.