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Humanity’s sandbox and how it impacts flooding (Part 2)

There’s an old adage that holds true like the sun rises in East. It goes, “When everybody is responsible, then nobody is responsible. When nobody is responsible, nothing gets fixed.” And, in my opinion, it’s very applicable when it comes to addressing and mitigating regional flooding issues.

Previously in Part 1, I wrote about why we all have a part to play for why there’s so much flash flooding in the Pittsburgh region. Especially when it comes to the stormwater generated from our homes and businesses.

Over the past century we have done tremendous harm to the way we have altered the water cycle and created a more flood prone condition. We’ve buzz-sawed swaths of forests in a matter of decades. We’ve constructed miles upon miles of smooth rainwater “impermeable” surfaces such as roads, roofs, and parking lots. Or “flood out your downstream neighbor” surfaces because that’s really what they are doing.

One of my favorite Twitter follows is by a local yinzer named Conor Tompkins. He makes really awesome data visualization maps. And if you know anything about me or this blog, you would know I’m all about this kind of stuff and Conor is a great source of inspiration. One of my favorite Twitter posts from him is on the increased land development in Allegheny County over its history.

As you watch these animations, think about the ramifications of an altered water cycle. Think about how for each new land parcel put into our sandbox, how the amount of water is increasing and accelerating down into our steep valleys. Think about how as each new road, roof, or parking lot is built, more and more water is unable to be absorbed by forests and nature.

Most importantly, think about the people living at the bottom of our watersheds. How they are powerless to the new development happening upstream of their homes and businesses. How all these additional “flood out your downstream neighbor” surfaces are impacting the lives of those folks. The people living communities along Saw Mill Run in Pittsburgh, or along Girty’s Run in Milvale, or Pine Creek in Etna, or Chartiers Creek in McKees Rocks, or down in “The Run” in the famous Big Jim’s territory in Pittsburgh.

I’ve often thought to myself why are all the valleys in the Pittsburgh region named after some kind of “Run”? Maybe it’s because when it rains hard that is what you should do. Run. Run for your life.


So what have we as a society collectively done about this issue? You may be wondering why aren’t laws in place to help prevent this issue from happening? Why yes, yes inquisitive reader, there are laws. Laws that govern what we can and cannot do in humanity’s sandbox. Let’s talk briefly about those laws. Let me put on my old timey lawyer wig and black gown for the rest of this post.

I think most of us have heard of the the most prominent water law in the history of this country. It’s the 1972 Clean Water Act. This is a federal law and was created to serve and govern all the states across this fine nation. The creation of this law was largely in response to late 1960s water catastrophes. The two most prominent both happening in 1969 with the five story high Cuyahoga River Fire and the Santa Barbara Disaster. In 1972, Congress passed The Clean Water Act in order to address our nation’s water pollution problems. Namely from the pollution being generated from industrial discharge pipes. The Clean Water Act does not address flooding issues but it set the stage for increased focus on protecting the health and safety of the public around the issue of water.

Stage left enter in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania…

In 1978, Pennsylvania passed a law called “Storm Water Management Act“. The law recognized the detrimental impact increased development was having on the water cycle and the health and safety of communities. It marked the first time Pennsylvania government tried to step-in and course correct the damage the activities within humanity’s sandbox had done to the impacts of increased flooding. Within the Act the state General Assembly admitted the following:

“Inadequate management of accelerated runoff of storm water resulting from development throughout a watershed increases flood flows and velocities, contributes to erosion and sedimentation, overtaxes the carrying capacity of streams and storm sewers, greatly increases the cost of public facilities to carry and control storm water, undermines flood plain management and flood control efforts in downstream communities, reduces ground-water recharge, and threatens public health and safety.”

In response to this admission, the Act mandated two things:

  1. That every county in Pennsylvania develop a storm water management plan detailing future flood mitigation efforts for each of its watersheds, and
  2. That every municipality in Pennsylvania implement local storm water ordinances that regulate and limit the runoff from development within the municipality in a manner consistent with the applicable watershed storm water plan.

It was a huge step in the right direction, but in 2018 the law had to be amended (forty years later!) to include more forceful language stipulating penalties for those not complying with the law. Forty years! At least Moses was able to part the Red Sea and control the flood waters with the wave of his hand after wandering around in the wilderness for that long.

As it turns out laws without the ability to actually enforce them are really just nicely worded polite requests. Again see Moses and the Ten Commandments, we finally had to get those rules set in stone for them to work. For decades, some counties and municipalities were not abiding by the law set forth in the Storm Water Management Act of 1978. And get this, some are still not. See map below.

Act 167 Plans Status Map

Another super important thing to point out with the Act is that it doesn’t apply to development that existed prior to the enactment of the law. So unless you’re living in a newer community in a place like Cranberry Township, the vast majority of Pennsylvania cities and municipalities were developed long before 1978.  In other words, the damage to the water cycle has already been done! So the municipal stormwater regulations don’t really do much for actually “fixing” the problem that was already created, it just limits it from getting worse.

This is the best analogy I can come up with. Follow along with me here…

Imagine your entire house is filled with faulty electrical wiring and is in high danger of burning down at any given moment. Every time you flip a switch you see random sparks are going off in the outlets and there are hints of burning smells wafting throughout the air. One fine sunny Saturday morning over coffee and pancakes at your breakfast nook you say to your significant other:  “Hey honey, why don’t we finally get the first floor half bathroom remodeled this year and fix the electrical wiring in there. Hey, maybe this will also fix the wiring problem throughout the entire house…. I’m a genius why didn’t I think of this earlier!”

Unfortunately, I am sorry to inform you, no, you are not a creative home improvement genius in this analogy.

The house and the newly remodeled half bathroom burned down later that year. But hey, at least I let you escape from this analogy with your life. Actually, what really happened was that I broke into your house with an axe while you were peacefully sleeping unaware of the fire raging around you. I managed to battle through flames in my fireman suit, and heroically rescued you along with your cats. We jumped out the second story window into a makeshift cot waiting for us on the ground below. No need to thank me. It’s really no big deal. I’m just glad you and your spouse and your cats are safe. All in a days work in the life of Tom Batroney, fake volunteer fireman.

Moral of the story 1: Fixing the wiring in one half bathroom won’t fix the problem that already exists throughout the entire house.

Moral of the story 2: Fixing the stormwater from one development site won’t fix the problem that already exists throughout the entire watershed.

Moral of the story 3: I am not a trained fireman nor do I play one on TV. Please don’t call me if you have a fire. Call 911 and real trained professionals will come to your rescue.

Addressing flooding will require additional coordinated effort beyond just laws governing new development. The regulations from the 1978 Pennsylvania Storm Water Management Act were/are a step in the right direction but much more is needed to fix the decades of wrongs we’ve created in humanity’s sandbox.

More on that coming in Part 3.

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