This is Part 3 in an exploration of how humanity’s actions in our sandbox have created a more flood prone condition. Here’s links to Part 1 and Part 2. But really you can go ahead and read Part 3 without reading those parts if you want. You know, just do what feels good. If you read this one, and like it, go back and read the first two. Or do a catch up and read the first two, then read this one. I’m probably making this preamble more confusing than it needs to be. This is the third part, just read it in whatever way floats your floodboat.
“We are all responsible for flooding.” – Tom Batroney
Every one of us has a hand in the blame. You, me, and the pointing kid, which metaphorically is me, I guess. That cool looking kid with that smirk. Wipe that smirk off your face kid, you are so responsible. Also that long haired person, who I am assuming is a girl, and is not paying attention to this made up conversation, is also responsible.
The problem is when flooding happens, it is always thought of someone else’s problem to fix. Not yours or mine, but someone else’s. That blame usually falls onto the shoulders of the town mayor, manager, or engineer of said flooded town. But in reality, she is but a single blade of grass in the vast open field of blame which has contributed to this flooding mess.
As the saying goes, and is true more often than not, when you point the finger of blame at someone else, there are always three pointing back at you. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the pointing kid again.
Society has done tremendous alteration to the natural water cycle to promote a more flood prone condition. We’ve done everything we can to increase the volume and speed of the rainwater runoff. Our goal has been to get the water away as fast as possible. To send it downstream to become someone else’s problem to deal with. Go ahead, you have fun dealing with this torrent of water, downstream town engineer.
How did this happen?
We did it in the name of industrial progress and the sprit of American freedom. In less than a century we cut down swaths of forests using newly discovered industrial engines fueled by dead dinosaurs. After the forests were cut down, using those same engines, we then paved over the land block-by-block and created cities to house an explosion of newly arriving immigrants. When those cities became too crowded, we then created networks of transportation highways to sprawling suburban developments each with their own driveway and two car garage.
That’s the American story over the past couple centuries condensed down into one single paragraph.
It’s also a story of hard work and innovation put in over many consecutive decades. Yeah, you can include some world wars and how America saved western democracy from fascism and communism. That was a pretty big deal, I’ll admit. Or how Americans voluntarily strapped themselves inside explosive rockets in order to collect some rocks on the moon. That was also freaking amazing. But those accomplishments don’t define America to me. In my mind, we’re defined by the sweat and ingenuity supplied from a rich diversity of immigrants from all corners of the world. It’s the collection of hard work from those diverse immigrants that defines America. That’s what America is about.
But all that hard work in such a short burst did have some draw backs.
In our incredibly fast haste to build this country very few of us considered the ramifications of replacing centuries old rainwater absorbing forests with impermeable hardscapes of concrete, asphalt, and roof shingles. Not at least until it was too late. Now when heavy rain happens, instead of rainwater being absorbed by forests, it now floods out your downstream neighbor. This is the situation we’ve created and why we are all to blame.
Take for example the single family home in a residential neighborhood. In other words, the 20th century ideal piece of American land.
We’ve gone from this…
The single biggest cause for flooding is the increased amount of impermeable flood-out-your-downstream-neighbor surfaces. The volume and speed of the rainwater runoff dramatically increases when the land is transformed from forest to roads and buildings and parking lots.
So what can we do about this? Let’s be clear, in no way am I proposing that the solution is to stop human progress and development. I’m not some anti-industrial-machine-smashing-luddite wishing to demolish residential suburban homes and replant them with rainwater absorbing forests in the name of reducing flooding. No, that is not what I am suggesting at all.
What I’m suggesting is we all need to understand the historical context of how we’ve severely altered the water cycle. Using that context, each of us needs to do our part to restore the water cycle back to a forest-like state, or at least as close as possible to a forest-like state.
In Part 2, I wrote about how in the 1970s laws were put in place to ensure that rainwater is properly managed from new development. These laws were put into place to ensure that new land, when developed, “acts” like a natural forest in order to mimic the natural water cycle. The essence of these laws are to slow down the rainwater runoff and absorb it on a portion of the property.
Unfortunately, these laws do nothing about the existing land that has already been developed. Which is the overwhelmingly the vast majority of the land, at least in the Pittsburgh region. So what are we to do about all the existing properties that are already developed?
Part of the solution is that all of us need to pitch in and install rainwater absorbing features for our properties, wherever feasibly possible, when there is space available.
Take for example the single family home with a large front lawn shown previously. Rather than sending that water as fast as possible to your downstream neighbor, the property owner could disconnect the corner roof rain gutter, install a rain garden, and fill it with plants and a tree. Research has shown, that if installed properly, a rainwater absorbing garden will do a pretty decent job at mimicking the water cycle of a small “forest” for most rain events (see reference at bottom). Rainwater runoff from roads could also be absorbed into roadside natural rain garden swales that would catch and slow down the water.
In addition to single family homes, large parking lots are a massive single concentrated source of rainwater runoff and increased flooding. Large parking lots are like an amusement park roller coaster ride adrenaline rush for speeding up rainwater runoff. We need to thoughtfully consider balancing the need for MORE PARKING! with more thoughtful consideration for flooding out our downstream neighbor. For decades, American society has long had a heavy addiction to MORE PARKING! There never seems to be enough parking to satisfy some folks. That mindset and addiction needs to be kicked with a twelve step program. We need to sacrifice some parking spaces and our convenience for the greater good of restoring the water cycle and helping our downstream neighbor.
The great news is that there are people that are aware of the more flood prone condition we’ve created in our sandbox. Some individual home owners have voluntarily installed rainwater absorbing features on their properties. Some businesses and communities are reconstructing parking lots to absorb more rainwater. And yes, some are taking away a couple parking spots in the process (gasp! the horror!).
These individuals realize it’s the right thing to do if you love and care at all about your downstream neighbor.
By installing these features, these folks get the peace of mind in knowing that they are no longer contributing to the flooding problem that we ourselves have created. They’ve removed their own impermeable flood-out-your-downstream-neighbor surface from the gears of the massive societal flooding machine.
If done right, installing rainwater absorbing features are a beautiful thing and feeling. They are a full-on expression of love and consideration for your fellow neighbor that somewhere downstream might be flooded the next time it rains heavily.
People who are installing rainwater absorbing features within their own personal sandboxes are doing their part to help. Even if it’s a very small part. They do this because deep down they know if a lot more people did it, it may even help prevent the next flood and help a person in need.
In Part 4, I will be writing about some of my favorite rainwater absorbing examples that are taking place right here in the Pittsburgh region.
Davis, Allen & Traver, Robert & III, William & Brown, Robert & Lee, Ryan & Olszewski, Jennifer. (2012). Hydrologic Performance of Bioretention Storm-Water Control Measures. Journal of Hydrologic Engineering. 17. 604-614. 10.1061/(ASCE)HE.1943-5584.0000467.