Reader Profile: James Pollum

Jan. 7, 2016

James Pollum, a civil engineer focusing on environmental hydrology for the Philadelphia Water Department’s stormwater credits and billing program, says “It would be great if people one day viewed stormwater like they view electricity. You turn off the lights when you leave the room to save electricity. We should be using green infrastructure to protect our rivers and streams in regard to stormwater. We have a long way to go, but in the past decade, stormwater has become a focal point in the engineering world and in the public eye.”

Pollum spoke about public-private partnerships at StormCon last August in Austin, TX—in particular, those related to the city’s Green City, Clean Waters program. Some 66% of the city is served by a combined sewer system, where sewage and stormwater share pipes going to the treatment plant. While there is no problem during dry spells or average rainfall, “during large rainfall events, treatment plants are unable to maintain the load coming in, so we get untreated sewage and stormwater flowing into our rivers and streams. Given Philadelphia’s history of a fragile stream network, our goal with Green City, Clean Waters is to reduce overflows by mitigating runoff throughout the city and in the combined sewer overflow area,” notes Pollum.

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Begun in 2011, the program aims to “green” 10,000 acres —or one-third—of the city’s combined sewer area. There are three ways to achieve that, including public retrofits, says Pollum. A second is the city’s requirement that all new and redevelopments manage the first inch of runoff onsite. The third method involves two programs to incentivize private retrofits. The Stormwater Management Incentives Program (SMIP) provides grants to nonresidential property owners wanting to retrofit their properties to manage stormwater that would otherwise end up in the sewer system and waterways. Grant recipients get financial assistance for system design and implementation and lower stormwater fees for generating less runoff from their properties. The city likes it because it can get greened acres at a reasonable cost, says Pollum, pointing out the partnership’s mutual benefit. The other program is the Green Acre Retrofit Program (GARP), which provides stormwater grants to contractors or project aggregators who can build large-scale stormwater retrofit projects across multiple properties.

What He Does Day to Day
In addition to his involvement in the Green City, Clean Waters programs, Pollum assists his team with the city’s stormwater accounts. He’s the designated “phone guy,” answering inquiries about stormwater bills. “Sometimes they want to complain. Sometimes they want to know what they can do to lower it, and that’s the genesis of a potential retrofit,” notes Pollum.

What Led Him to This Line of Work
Fascinated with tall bridges and buildings, Pollum had always wanted to be a civil engineer. During his junior year at Temple University, he pursued the environmental side, inspired by a professor who talked about urban stormwater management. “I realized you can make a difference by getting into storm­water management,” says Pollum. He earned a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from Temple University in 2010, did some traveling, and honed his GIS skills at a part-time job with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection before joining Philadelphia’s Water Department in 2012.

What He Likes Best About His Work
Pollum, a lifelong Philadelphia resident, loves the city and being an “ambassador” for the Green City, Clean Waters program. “It’s nationally renowned,” he notes. “I like explaining what we’re doing and why it’s a good thing. I like that I get to see these projects from their genesis to their completion.”

His Biggest Challenge
Reaching the goal of greening 10,000 acres in 25 years is the biggest challenge, says Pollum. While the city has met its benchmarks to date, there’s a move afoot to increase the rate through the GARP program. “It’s an aggregated approach, a minimum 10 acres of impervious area,” says Pollum. “We were so excited to get structures in the ground that we didn’t think about how they should be maintained. We started an inspection program to make sure that not only are they being maintained, but they’re being functional and if they’re not functioning, is it bad installation? Poor maintenance? A mix of the two? That’s a learning curve as well.”
About the Author

Carol Brzozowski

Carol Brzozowski specializes in topics related to resource management and technology.

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