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How Austin-Bergstrom Airport’s Stormwater Plan is Crushing Pollution

Slide titled 'CASE STUDY - AUSTIN-BERGSTROM INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT' with a backdrop of the airport's exterior at dusk.

Let’s talk about Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan or SWP3 for an airport.

As you fly into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA), you can’t help but notice the sprawling 4,200-acre site buzzing with activity.

Commercial jets line the terminal aprons, while cargo planes load and unload on the outskirts.

Passengers hustle between parking garages and the terminal, while fleets of rental cars wait in neat rows.

It’s an impressively choreographed dance of people and machines.

But there’s something even more remarkable happening behind the scenes at ABIA, a world-class stormwater management system that’s keeping the airport humming while also protecting the environment.

Satellite image of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport showing the layout of runways, terminals, and parking areas, labeled with points of interest such as 'Austin South Terminal' and 'ABIA Parking.

You see, with great size comes great responsibility, and ABIA takes its role as a steward of nearby waterways like Onion Creek and the Colorado River seriously.

So how does an airport as busy as ABIA keep its stormwater runoff squeaky clean?

The secret lies in its comprehensive Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan, or SWPPP.

In this post, we’ll show the key ingredients that make ABIA’s SWPPP an industry standout and explore how the airport gets all its tenants on board with going green.

Identifying Stormwater Risks: The First Step to Cleaner Runoff

Before we jump into solutions, let’s set the stage with the stormwater challenges ABIA is up against.

Aerial view of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with various commercial airplanes at the gates, including a prominently featured Spirit Airlines jet, and another airplane mid-takeoff in the background.


When you have a major airport with over a quarter of its land area covered by hard surfaces like runways and buildings, you get a lot of stormwater runoff.

In fact, ABIA sees over 32 inches of rainfall a year on average.

That means the airport has to manage serious water volumes.

Plus, airports are hotspots for potential pollutants.

Think about it – planes, vehicles and equipment need constant fueling, washing, and maintaining.

Chemicals like deicers, paints and solvents are part of the daily routine.

Even the rubber tires leave their mark.

Some of ABIA’s unique stormwater risks include:

  • Quarterly power-washing of runways to remove tire skid marks, flushing thousands of soapy gallons
  • Outdoor scrubbing of rental car wheels before entering the wash bay, sending sudsy runoff into drains
  • Backwash water from the on-site hotel’s pool filtering system discharging into grassy swales

Bottom line?

Airports have a lot of moving parts, and ABIA’s Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan needs to keep up.

Putting Nature to Work: ABIA’s Green Infrastructure

A Southwest Airlines airplane adorned with an American flag-themed livery takes off from a runway, with the control tower of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport visible in the background

So how does ABIA combat all those potential pollutants?

No doubt! By leveraging the power of nature.

The airport’s first line of defense is the abundant vegetation covering nearly three-quarters of the property.

These grassy areas do double duty – they slow down stormwater so it can soak into the soil while also acting like a giant filter to trap pollutants.

But ABIA goes even further by using a system of specially designed ponds to capture and clean the runoff from the airport’s most high-traffic areas.

Here’s how it works:

  • Stormwater from the runways and roads is funneled into sedimentation ponds, where gunk like tire particles and oil drops settle out
  • The water then flows into filtration ponds packed with layers of sand and compost where microscopic organisms break down dissolved pollutants
  • Finally, the spruced-up stormwater gets released offsite at a measured pace that won’t overwhelm local creeks

This natural infrastructure is a win-win.

It keeps nasty pollutants out of the waterways while also beautifying the airport grounds.

In fact, a 2011 study showed just how big an impact these green systems have, the grassy strips along the runways alone were a major sink for pollutants like metals and nutrients.

Of course, ABIA has some hard-hitting traditional stormwater controls too.

High-risk zones like the fueling station and deicing pads have heavy-duty components like oil-water separators and concrete basins to corral the dirtiest “first flush” of runoff.

But by and large, ABIA lets nature do the heavy lifting for cleaner stormwater.

Keeping Tenants in Line: ABIA’s Inspection & Enforcement Program

Interior of an airport showcasing large flight departure screens with schedules, an advertisement for parking at ABIA, and a welcoming digital billboard saying 'Welcome to the family Austin' with an image of a Ferris wheel.

Now, even the best laid Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan won’t get far if the actual airport users aren’t on board.

That’s why the other cornerstone of ABIA’s SWPPP is its comprehensive inspection and enforcement program.

The airport’s Department of Aviation (DOA) sets the tone by requiring every airline, cargo handler, maintenance provider and contractor to develop their own set of stormwater protection practices.

These measures range from basic good housekeeping all the way up to sophisticated technologies for capturing and treating high-risk runoff.

The DOA even offers annual training sessions to get all the tenants up to speed on the latest and greatest stormwater solutions.

But the real magic of ABIA’s program is how it holds tenants accountable through unannounced audits and strict penalties.

The airport’s stormwater “police” include:

  • Environmental Affairs crews who show up weekly during deicing season to make sure spent chemicals are being properly collected and disposed of
  • DOA compliance teams and tenant staff who scout the whole airport quarterly for any stormwater infractions, no matter how minor
  • A crack squad of independent inspectors who put the entire airport under a microscope once a year in a comprehensive checkup

These eagle-eyed enforcers scour every nook and cranny of the airport looking for stormwater risks – things like unlabeled drums, leaky equipment, or clogged drains.

If they turn up any problems, tenants have to jump into action with a fix-it plan or risk losing their license to operate.

It might sound heavy-handed, but this tough love approach gets results.

By having the airport team, tenants and outside auditors work together to find and squash stormwater problems, ABIA has built a culture of continuous improvement that’s always raising the bar.

Monitoring Progress & Adapting for the Future

Twilight view of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport with the terminal buildings illuminated and commercial airplanes at the gates, captured from the tarmac level.

The final piece of ABIA’s Stormwater Pollution Prevention success story is its commitment to tracking what’s working.

The airport doesn’t just hope its SWPPP is doing the job – it uses hard data to measure progress and find weak spots.

Every quarter, the DOA collects samples from major stormwater outfalls across the property for both field and lab analysis.

These test results, along with notes from the army of inspectors, paint a crystal-clear picture of how well the airport is meeting its clean water goals.

All this number-crunching has triggered some big upgrades to the stormwater system over the years.

When the quarterly data showed de-icing chemicals were still infiltrating the runoff despite everyone’s best efforts.

That the airport installed a new recycling system to capture more of the used fluid before it could reach the storm drains.

And after repeated violations for leaky oil containers, the DOA rolled out a fresh round of spill prevention trainings and added extra cleanup kits in hotspot areas.

That’s the beauty of ABIA’s data-driven approach.

By keeping a finger on the pulse of its own performance, the airport can spot issues early and make smart tweaks that keep its environmental impact on a downward trajectory.

Flying Above & Beyond

Road signs against a clear blue sky showing directions for Texas State Highway 71 East towards Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and Loop 275 for S Congress Ave with an 'EXIT ONLY' arrow.

When it comes to sustainable stormwater management, ABIA is soaring miles above most airports – and even a lot of industrial sites in general.

Its one-two punch of natural treatment systems and rigorous tenant oversight sets a new standard for what a clean-running airport looks like.

But what’s truly remarkable is how ABIA has managed to hardwire environmental stewardship into the daily rhythm of one of the busiest travel hubs in Texas.

From the maintenance crews power-washing the runways to the rental car companies scrubbing down vehicles, everyone who works at ABIA has a role to play in protecting the surrounding waterways.

That’s not just a win for the airport – it’s a victory for the entire Austin community that relies on clean creeks and lakes for swimming, fishing and drinking water.

So the next time you’re jetting off from ABIA, take a moment to appreciate all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into responsibly managing the airport’s environmental footprint.

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