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Article 60

Feature article from Watershed Protection Techniques. 1(3): 95-99

Construction Practices: The Good,
the Bad, and the Ugly
by Robert G. Paterson, Assistant Professor, University of Texas

ver the last two decades, numerous field and experiences. Second, the administrators were also asked
laboratory studies have tested the best to comment on their perception of the main cause(s) of
techniques for preventing erosion and trap- failures for each construction practice. Possible rea-
ping suspended sediment at construction sites. The sons for failures included that the practice was installed
U.S. EPA has incorporated many of these findings into poorly, did not work, or was poorly maintained.
its guidance documents for the NPDES stormwater and The field investigation provided an independent
nonpoint source control programs (U.S. EPA, 1992; assessment of ESC implementation for more than 1,000
1993). However, very few of the studies have assessed construction practices evaluated in a total of 128 ESC
how well these plans are actually implemented at con- plans within nine North Carolina jurisdictions. The
struction sites. nine jurisdictions were selected to adequately repre-
Anecdotal evidence suggests that poor installation sent construction sites in each of North Carolina’s three
and maintenance of construction practices is endemic physiographic regions (mountain, piedmont and coastal
in many state and local erosion and sediment control plain) and across three different levels of program
(ESC) programs (Banach, 1988; Dawson, 1988; Doenges administration (i.e., municipal, county and state admin-
et al., 1990; Lemonde, 1988). Detailed information, istered programs).
however, is lacking on the specific problems encoun- Project sites were randomly selected from a list of
tered during implementation (Dawson, 1988; Doenges active construction projects within each jurisdiction
et al., 1990). Systematic analysis of ESC program imple- using a random assignment procedure. The selection
mentation is needed to advance these practices. De- procedure provided a fairly even mix of development
signers need to know which construction practices are types: 56% of the construction projects were residential
most problematic and know how to limit performance and 44% were non-residential. The quality of ESC
failures through better design and inspection. implementation was evaluated in terms of (a) whether
Sediment control inspectors can also benefit from the practices had been adequately installed and (b) if
this kind of information. For example, many inspectors they were adequately maintained.
learn job skills through an apprenticeship process which
unfortunately relegates much learning to trial and error Study Results
despite the best efforts of senior ESC professionals to Expert Opinion on ESC Practice Performance
help them “learn the ropes.” In other cases, problems
are encountered on such a piecemeal basis that trends Few North Carolina ESC administrators were satis-
cannot be easily discerned. fied with the typical field performance of most con-
struction practices; only three out of the 11 construc-
This article sheds light on implementation prob- tion practices were considered to be good or excellent
lems that persist among many commonly prescribed (Figure 1). Sediment basins, sediment traps, and riprap
construction practices based on a comprehensive evalu- stabilized channels received the highest percentage of
ation of North Carolina’s ESC Program undertaken in favorable ratings. The worst performers, by a large
1990. Problems with construction practices were iden- margin, were brush barriers and straw bales. Only two
tified through both expert opinion surveys and an out of 34 administrators rated typical field performance
investigation of over 1,000 prescribed construction as “good” and none viewed typical brush barrier per-
practices in the field. Expert opinions were obtained formance as satisfactory. Evaluations also tended to be
through a mail survey of 44 North Carolina ESC negative on pre-fabricated silt fence and filter strip
administrators using the Total Survey Design method. performance. Opinion was more varied on the ad-
Responses were received from 77% of the total popu- equacy of vegetatively stabilized channels, slope drains,
lation. constructed silt fence, and storm drain inlet protection
Expert opinion was sought on two key implementa- (SDIP) measures.
tion issues. First, administrators were asked to rate a list A majority of the experts attributed construction
of commonly used construction practices on a subjec- practice failure to poor installation (Table 1). Most
tive five-point effectiveness scale (excellent, good, administrators identified poor installation as the pri-
average, fair, and poor) based on their typical field mary cause of failure for filter strips, pre-fabricated silt


ers are allowing the use of questionable practices. and evaluated prescribed the use of straw bale or brush storm drain inlet protection measures. filter strips.fence. the most technically questionable construc. only two of the 128 sediment control plans of failures for sediment basins. sediment traps. poor maintenance ran a close second opinion. Table 2 summarizes typical comments ber of construction practices that were never installed from administrators from the open response option on the survey. pre-fabricated silt fence. and slope drains were used sparingly. Table 1: Main Reason for Construction Practice Failure as Identified by North Carolina Administrators (reported in percentage response). Again. constructed silt fence. For example. barriers. slope drains. however. Likewise. For tors identified poor maintenance as the principal cause example. vegetatively Field Survey Performance Ratings stabilized channels. In many The field survey corroborated much of the expert cases. and riprap lined channel. N = 22-29 Technically Poor Poor Erosion and sediment deficient installation maintenance control measure (%) (%) (%) Brush barriers 58 29 13 Straw bales 64 20 16 Filter strip 23 41 36 Pre-fabricated silt fence 23 54 23 Silt fence 7 57 36 Sediment trap 0 38 62 Sediment basin 11 29 60 Inlet protection 16 40 44 Slope drain 0 76 24 Vegetated channel 27 57 15 Riprap channel 15 74 11 Figure 1: Administrators’ Performance Ratings—Percent Indicating Satisfactory Performance 45 . tion practices were thought to be brush barriers and Perhaps the most interesting finding was the num- straw bales. Most administra. it appears that few plan review- as the primary cause of likely failure.

widespread obstacle to effective sediment pollution Filter strips Undersized filter area. and failure to leave inlet clear of ing underlying causes of the installation and mainte- debris and sediment build up. The worst news is that these results came from concentrated runoff at entry. it provided little insight regard- pater at outlet. the Bad. is Practice Comments that plan reviewers and inspectors are reducing field performance problems by minimizing the use of con- Straw bales and Rapid loss of filtration capacity due to deteriora- brush barriers tion and gaps often left between measure and struction practices with a chronic history of poor imple- ground. basins and traps were installed correctly. answered. filter More than 40% of silt fence applications were berms and dikes. or silt build-up) and damaged filter fabric (also fence) were never installed and nearly half of all pre. The two most favored practices. failure to route and blame all implementation problems on devel- and traps stabilize embankments. knocked down by construction vehicles. anecdotal evidence that poor maintenance remains a Among those SDIP measures actually installed. hydraulic struction practices (storm drain inlet protection and silt overload. pre-fabricated silt fence. Once again. fail. including anti-tracking pads. The SDIP and Failure to install all parts of the measure (e. Certainly one could take the easy Sediment basins Failure to remove built up sediment. opinion surveys. damage from vehicular impact of the traps and one-fourth of the basins were reported and sediment build-up). failure to arguably responsible for ensuring that construction anchor riser pipe. the low use of straw bales. at least in North Carolina. For example. nance failures noted.e. the field survey examined several construc- age systems in about one out of every five storm drain tion practices that were not evaluated in the expert inlet protection measures installed. control plans. Second. rioration). SDIP and silt The final column in Table 3 corroborates much of the fences. and nearly half needed additional mainte. almost a third needed failure to anchor filter fabric (33%). four ESC practices were considered to be functionally equate coverage of the base with filtration material). about persistent impediment to effective sediment control. compared to surprisingly strong performance of dikes. bad news is that the study has corroborated prior ure to cover entire designated area with fence. opers and their grading contractors since they are improper levelling of embankments. almost half of the plans failed to require lems included failure to use reinforcing wire (42%). failure to anchor the base. in states that rely solely on voluntary compliance. failure to make The study raised many more questions than it inlet water tight. The most common maintenance prob. failure to install trash rack. The widespread use of silt fence perhaps should be re-evaluated in light of their dismal performance in the field. maintenance). while most sediment nance if they were to perform properly (problems in. an investigation of a program that many consider to be one of the strongest ESC programs in the nation. Finally. while anti-tracking pads poorly installed and two-thirds required maintenance to are widely recognized as an important part of erosion perform properly. For example. sparse vegetation. practices outlined in their sediment control plans are 46 . sion measure of choice at most construction sites. This Vegetative and Inadequate channel bed construction and at- riprap channels tempted vegetative stabilization in high velocity suggests that ESC programs may perform even worse flow. impaired because of poor maintenance.g. The most common installation prob. and the Ugly Stormwater What lessons can be drawn from the above analy- Management sis? Well the good news. the 29% were not properly anchored (primarily silt fence two most commonly used construction practices were designs).. and control. Slope drains Failure to anchor drain to slope. and filter strips). among the top five offenders. evaluators noted visible sediment entering into drain. even though they were shown on the plan. failure to install velocity dissi. silt fence reinforcing wire). possibly due to construction activities or natural dete- scribed velocity dissipators were not in place. to fail because of poor maintenance. mentation (i. Because of those failures. Table 2: Comments on Why Construction Practices Fail The Good. spillway deterioration. were frequently installed in a poor manner. nearly one-half cluded torn filter fabric. More than lems were failure to repair damaged fencing (whether a quarter of the two most commonly prescribed con. them (and of those installed. brush barriers.. and failure to appro. anecdotal evidence that poor implementation remains a and construction vehicles back over devices. And. the field survey revealed that silt priately space posts or install the full length of required fence has generally replaced earthen dikes as the diver- fencing (22%). more than one out of every lacked required materials like reinforcing wire and ad. a third were not properly constructed (construction With only three exceptions.

construction Percent Percent Percent Erosion and sediment practices actually installed adequately control measures required in plan installed correctly maintained Storm drain inlet protection 189 71 * 72 * 55 * Silt fence 174 67 * 58 * 34 * Sediment trap 155 86 86 58 * Veg. but placed them in locations where they of ESC programs and the apparent shortcomings that served little practical purpose. poor training. Table 3: North Carolina Field Survey of the Performance of Construction Practices No.g. stances./earth channel 147 77 98 87 Velocity dissipaters 147 51 * 86 69 * Anti-tracking pad 66 89 89 67 * Sediment basin 43 84 94 75 * Filter berm 25 52 * 85 54 * Earthen dike 25 92 100 92 Riprap channel 20 50 * 90 50 * Check dam 20 80 94 63 * Pipe slope drain 9 ** 89 100 50 Filter strip 4 ** 100 100 100 Straw bale 2 ** 100 50 0 Brush barrier 1 ** 100 0 0 Prefab silt fence 1 ** 100 100 100 * 25% or more of practices rated inadequate for listed criterion ** Inadequate number of cases for analysis installed correctly. are likely to damage the devices or leave inadequate vey. In complex than they initially appear. such as notes that merely specify and environmental professionals alike is to identify the “Silt fence to be placed where necessary. problems may stem not only from a lack of commit- tor had incurred all material and labor installation ment. The point of this discussion is simply one of developers saving a buck. In other in. in many other instances. contractors constructed the silt fencing to plan Given the critical importance of field implementation specifications.” principal causes of construction practice failures and 47 .g.. a lack of training may also be responsible. poor plans. However. result from design problems such as hydraulic overload Consider. This problem often exist. The cynic might conclude that the problem is room for maintenance). while many maintenance problems are the proach undoubtedly over simplifies what in many cases result of neglect. for example. lation and maintenance problems often may be more tive. problems is likely to be a complex situation. constraints). and site-specific training to properly anchor the fence. such an antagonistic ap. much more attention should be focused on im- occurred when erosion control plans contained vague proving plan implementation. but also from a lack of knowledge on how to costs. Likewise. And.. while not to shift blame. The task for researchers field information. but rather to emphasize that instal- some installation problems are surely due to this mo. the silt fence installation or inappropriate fence placement (e. but the construction crew lacked the proper comply (e. where vehicles and maintenance problems identified by the field sur. Implementation several instances. it was clear that the grading contrac.

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