AN EXPERT’S VIEW: A battle is raging between some residents in the Pascack Valley and United Water. The residents believe the utility is responsible for water that floods their neighborhoods – which, by the way, are located in what for years has been a designated flood plain. However, as a storm water drainage engineer, I can tell you the real culprit isn’t United Water.
Our preparation for floods shouldn’t occur days before each rainfall. It’s not simply a matter of demanding that elected officials just “do something!” like empty the reservoir. The problems occur before the water ever reaches there.
While we didn’t cause the recent storm (although human-induced climate change could be to blame), we are all in some way responsible for the extent of its damage.
When we pave over our backyards without a thought, we are the problem. When we widen our already humongous driveways, we are the problem. When we put concrete patios everywhere, when we direct our house’s downspout directly to the driveway that leads to the street, when we connect our sump pump directly to the catch basin, WE ARE THE PROBLEM.Carol Hoernlein
Cut down one single tree and you’ve added to runoff. Clear your yard to make way for a bigger lawn and you’ve increased the amount significantly.
Thousands of residential homes and commercial parking lots have sprung up over the years, each individually and collectively contributing more and more runoff to the entire system.
Every forested acre replaced by a McMansion — with a tennis court and palatial entrance featuring an airport runway for a front drive — contributes to the problem.
And although residents who have been affected may not want to hear this, the answer isn’t in demanding the private utility empty some of its reserves before EVERY rainfall forecast.
The only real solution, in the end, is in shared responsibility, is in everyone working together.
That includes using new ways of returning the runoff profile to what it was before we built monstrous structures along the hills above the flood plain where these people live, before we made our own little patch of land the only thing we care about.
It’s possible, believe it or not, thanks to techniques categorized as LID: “Low Impact Development.” By mimicking Mother Nature, we can reduce the amount of runoff BEFORE it ever gets to the stream or creek or river.
LID is less than 20 years old, but the NJDEP has been working on the concept with private industry in an effort to reduce runoff. The agency has an excellent webpage that we drainage engineers use to design systems in New Jersey.
The problem is that most elected officials in the state have never heard of these techniques. Even worse, those who have lack the political will to really encourage their use.
Why? Because much of the burden of using these new methods lies with property owners in each town (read: the taxpayers and voters). Government officials are reluctant to ask sacrifice of their voters, no matter the overall consequences. In addition, “pay to play” also influences and increases the construction that makes matters worse. Compounding the problem are older engineers who are advising these officials and are reluctant to learn the new techniques.
People want huge, Hoover dam-like structures to solve flooding problems because that’s all they know. However, what’s needed instead here is cooperation from ALL neighbors, not just United Water. And that means every one of us.
We cannot dam or pipe our way out of this problem. Contrary to popular opinion, stormwater science is pointing to a more DE-centralized approach. We need to stop the rivulets from each property BEFORE they combine into a raging river. We will even recharge our groundwater at the same time.
If we do it right, it’s a win-win.
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