MS4: Get your share of the green infrastructure market

September 3, 2013 -  By
Gregg Robertson

Gregg Robertson

Many landscape contractors don’t recognize the acronym “MS4,” but they should. It’s a federal program that could have a very positive impact on our industry.

It stands for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems.

For years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has attempted to regulate stormwater discharges under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System program (NPDES), a federal law that regulates discharges into rivers and streams.

MS4 requires local governments to manage all stormwater falling on their jurisdiction. Shooting stormwater into the nearest stream—carrying with it all the pollutants swept up along surfaces—is no longer an acceptable practice.

EPA developed the MS4 program to deal with the stormwater problem. In 1990, 750 medium and large cities were brought into the program and by 1999 smaller municipalities entered the program as well. There are more than 6,000 smaller local governments in the second phase of the program. In essence, MS4 covers most of the urbanized area of the U.S.

Although the program has been around for more than 20 years, in many areas it’s just beginning to alter the manner in which development occurs, as local governments begin to implement ordinances and practices to manage stormwater.

Best management practices

Many of the “best management practices” the EPA and state governments advise to local governments to better manage their stormwater involve plants and green infrastructure. And that’s something the we, the Green Industry, are familiar with.

Instead of transporting stormwater to the nearest stream, local governments are now being mandated to create plans to infiltrate stormwater into the ground and slow its release to streams by using rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, tree plantings and other plant-based green infrastructure systems.

In its 2009 Crystal Ball Report, the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) called green infrastructure “the biggest distinct business opportunity of the 21st century” for landscape contractors.

The problem is we are not showing up to claim our share of this burgeoning market.

Our state association in Pennsylvania co-sponsored many workshops and field trips on green infrastructure topics over the past several years. Attending these events were local government officials, landscape architects, developers, engineering companies and consultants. Absent were landscape contractors.

Yet, I talked to landscape architects who were frustrated they could not find landscape contractors qualified to install the green infrastructure projects they were designing. These workshops and field trips were perfect opportunities for landscape contractors to connect with those who were funding and designing green infrastructure projects.

Reasons for the MS4 holdup

So what gives? Why is the Green Industry ceding “the biggest distinct business opportunity of the 21st century” to engineers, landscape architects and other professionals?

I have a few of hunches.

Getting involved in green infrastructure requires knowledge of a world with which few landscape contractors are familiar. It involves learning acronyms and programs like MS4 and NPDES. It involves forging new relationships with government officials and other professionals.

Also, selling to governments is a much different sales process than selling to a homeowner or a commercial account where you typically have one or two people involved in the decision making. A government project typically has more people involved in the decision-making process and the sales cycle is often longer.

Lastly, rather than taking the risk of entering a new market, many contractors are hoping the residential and commercial market will return to pre-recession levels.

Ways to get on board with MS4

So how can landscape contractors familiarize themselves with MS4?

First, visit the EPA’s website to read up on MS4. Then check out the MS4 page on your state environmental agency website. EPA has delegated administration for the MS4 program to most state environmental agencies. There you can find contacts and get up to speed on what’s going on in your state. Also, talk to your local governments to find out where they stand on MS4 implementation.

Your state association may also be a source of information on what’s happening with MS4 and green infrastructure. Many are sponsoring workshops and field trips on green infrastructure and some, such as the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA), have created a professional certification for sustainable landscapes and green infrastructure.

EPA and state environmental agencies are creating a huge new market for the Green Industry. Let’s take advantage of it.


About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at

2 Comments on "MS4: Get your share of the green infrastructure market"

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  1. Scott says:

    Editor’s note: Click here to download a sample site visit proposal.

    I could not find this! Wher is it???