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Public Works puzzle masters

Public Works puzzle masters

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    It's working! Eight months after a mix of Bermuda, millet, and rye is installed to stabilize the slopes of a troublesome drainage ditch. Photos: Howard Redfearn

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    One month later: the tragic results of simple human error. The contractor mows all the way down to the turf mat, occasionally pulling up staples along the way. Heartbreaking.

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    Nine months after that: starting (almost) all over again with hydromulch and a Curlex cover.

This story illustrates perfectly why there's no such thing as a simple solution. This city has spent $50,000 over at least five years to resolve this one issue. Feel free to groan along in empathy, as I did when I heard it at the International Erosion Control Association's annual conference.

Sometime in the 1980s, an open channel is dug behind a subdivision. Homeowners agree to maintain it, but the developer neglected to install gates in the fence that separates their backyards from the channel. But that's just as well, because the city approved a 10-foot channel-bottom design with 3:1 slopes: too steep for safe mowing.

Time passes. Weeds and trees grow. Residents complain.

Concrete pavers are installed. This limits growth to weeds but increases runoff velocity so much that stormwater begins sculpting the channel downstream. Ponds form. Mosquitoes proliferate. Residents complain.

A concrete channel is built, by hand, using wheelbarrows to transport tools and materials. There are no construction documents per se, just a channel 6 inches deep from side to side with no curb and riprap. Velocity increases some more. After a couple of years, fencing downstream teeters at the precipice of failing slopes. Residents complain.

Enter our hero, intrepid stormwater manager Howard Redfearn. After piecing all this together and assessing internal resources — public works regularly regrades channels, but has no experience specifying and installing erosion-control measures — Redfearn decides this is a job for someone who does.

Bids for a 200-linear-foot remediation are solicited and reviewed. One, for $30,000, involves a polymer-mat riprap substitute. The other, a 100% coconut-fiber matrix turf mat, is $10,000.

The choice is obvious. Riprap's removed, voids filled, slopes regraded and compacted, topsoil added, blanket and seed installed.

Now it's August in Texas. The seeds are thirsty and water trucks can't reach the area. Our hero devises an ingenious solution: tap a soaker hose with a timer on it into the residential water line, and subtract the amount used for irrigation from the homeowner's water bill.

Time passes. Homeowners stop complaining that their accounts weren't credited. The plants thrive. Fences again stand upright. No downstream complaints. Everybody's happy.

The mowing contractor shows up as scheduled. Despite explicit instructions to the contrary, crews scalp the planting.

Remember the last time something like this happened to you? Share your story the next time someone asks for an informational interview to see what a career in public works is like. They should know exactly what they're in for.