Dr. Bill Hunt’s talk at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh on August 9th focused on the historic flooding hurricanes NC has seen in recent years, and what that means for stormwater management. We all remember when 6 feet of water stood on I-40, making Wilmington was an island and closing 3200 roads statewide. Our highways were (in theory) designed for the 1/500 year storm event, but Florence was a 1/2000 year event in Wilmington.
An NCDOT staff member in the audience shared that they worked with NC Division of Emergency Management and the Navy (yes, the Navy) to ensure that Wilmington had adequate supplies. Looking forward, DOT is working with the National Weather Service and others to stress-test our highway system, as well as learning from Louisiana’s experience during Hurricane Katrina to study bridge span vulnerability (many bridges went out during Katrina due to wave action.)
So what does this mean for stormwater management using green infrastructure? Stormwater managers know that green infrastructure has been designed to effectively treat moderate-sized rain events. How can stormwater BMPs / SCMs safely convey or pass larger storms, while still meeting their treatment goals? Dr. Hunt said that we will probably need to design our SCMs to be a bit bigger and made out of more durable materials. Thinking more broadly about green infrastructure, he also emphasized the need for preserving lands that routinely floods as public amenities. Designing parks, ballfields, or urban agriculture areas that can survive being submerged and somewhat battered in storms will allow us to “live with water” better.
Dr. Hunt and others in the audience also emphasized the importance of breaking down our institutional and subject matter silos. Stormwater, transportation, and emergency managers–and developers–can learn from one another about how best to manage risk and maintain the resilience of the systems where we work, play and live.
How are you designing your SCMs and planning land use for extreme events? How are your partnerships with other managers evolving? Leave a comment below about what’s helping you solve these challenges we all face.
With over 10 million people living in the state of North Carolina, state residents’ day to day activities have an impact on water quality. Stormwater is surface runoff that does not soak into the ground during precipitation events (drizzle, rain, snow, and hail). As stormwater flows over neighborhoods, businesses, and streets, it picks up the trash, cigarette butts, pesticides, motor oils and other contaminants accumulated on hard surfaces and deposits them into our local creeks, rivers, and the ocean UNTREATED! Stormwater runoff is the #1 source of water pollution and the biggest threat to water quality in the state.
So what can you do? Here are some easy ways you can improve water quality this spring!
1. Don’t Over-Apply Fertilizer! Why?
Premature Plant Death
Over-application of synthetic or chemicals fertilizers can increase soil salinity and root burn in the long run, which may result in your plants not being able to properly absorb water and nutrients in the soil, leading to their untimely demise. Overuse of synthetic fertilizer can also disrupt soil chemistry and actually do damage to soils.
Harmful to Aquatic Life and Humans
When excess fertilizer gets into our storm drain system and travels into our waterways and oceans, algae blooms can form resulting in a loss of oxygen in the water. Algae blooms pose a direct threat to aquatic animals, which need to breathe just like we do!
A well-maintained, natural lawn care system requires little to no fertilizer. Talk to your local garden center about how to care for your landscape and if you must fertilize, what products you can purchase that are organic and environmentally friendly.
2. Sweep, Don’t Hose!
Sweep around your house and driveway vs. hosing to clean away the accumulated dirt and debris. When you sweep, pick up the debris and place it into the appropriate trash receptacle. Potentially impactful items and debris picked up and placed in the trash are less likely to get into the storm drain system and degrade water quality.
3. Take Your Car to A Car Wash
Spring is a great time for cleaning up inside and outside the home. However, when you spruce up your car, think of going to a local car wash vs. hosing it down at home. This actually saves water and reduces runoff to our waterways that contains soap and debris.
A standard garden hose uses about 10 gallons per minute. If you wash your car for 10 minutes, you might consume 100 gallons of water. While hosing with an automatic shut-off valve may save more water, it’s still recommended to take your car to a commercial car wash that can properly dispose of harmful runoff (debris, oil, harmful soaps, etc.). Commercial car washes also have sophisticated reclamation systems that enable them to re-use water, so they only expend approximately 9-15 gallons of water during any given wash cycle.
4. Plant Native Plants
Native plants are the foundation of a natural ecosystem. They provide biodiversity and give critters ample food and habitat, creating a sustainable ecosystem in your yard. Native plants also thrive in their “home” environment, requiring less water to thrive. Check out this list of North Carolina’s recommended native species here!
5. Make Your Landscape Water-Friendly
Consider installing green infrastructure practices like permeable pavers, rain barrels, French drains, bioswales, or reducing lawn areas altogether. When you use these practices to control the flow and sinking of water in your landscape, you’re helping to keep toxins and debris out of the storm drain system as well as capture water naturally — a WIN-WIN for you and the environment. Check out these Green Infrastructure Ideas, click here.
6. Scoop Your Pet’s Poop!
With warmer weather comes more walks with your fuzzy friend in the outdoors. Always remember to clean up after your pet’s waste and place it in the trash. Pet waste contains harmful bacteria that will wash into our waterways after a rainfall- which there is plenty of in the spring!
7. Drain Swimming Pool Safely
If you have a pool, drain it only when a test kit does not detect chlorine levels. Whenever possible, drain your pool or spa into the sanitary sewer system, where it will be treated. Also, store pool and spa chemicals in a covered area to prevent leaks and spills to the stormwater system.
Native plants are trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and other plants which occur naturally to a particular region. These plants provide a less labor intensive and water efficient landscape which is beneficial to commercial businesses, home owners, and the environment. Conversely, an invasive plant is an exotic species that has the ability to thrive and spread aggressively outside its natural range. Plants are the first line of defense when it comes to erosion control and stormwater management. Understanding plant species’ susceptibility to water-level fluctuations and landscape pollutants will enable better stormwater detention treatment and aesthetically pleasing environments.
Native plants, in rain gardens and in landscaping in general, are preferred because they are best adapted to soil and temperature conditions in a particular area. Because they have adapted to local conditions, native plants require no fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, or watering (once established). Native plants are also resistant to most pests and diseases and provide food and shelter of native animals. In regions with heavy clay soil, deep rooted native plants can break-up the soil better than typical varieties of lawn grass and improve clay soil’s permeability, ultimately acting as a green stormwater alternative. Trapping localized stormwater on site through the use of native plants can ensure percolation and increased filtration of nutrients entering the ground water. The extensive and deep root systems of native plants (see image below) slow down runoff, reduce soil erosion along river and stream banks, and absorb dirty water before it gets into the nearby waterways. Greater infiltration from native plants results in better pollutant filtering and more water replenishing the aquifer- ultimately reducing flood water and stormwater impacts. In summary, utilizing native plants and trees in your business or school landscaping allows for short and long term positive effects on stormwater runoff quantity and quality. Restoring your business, household, or school with native vegetation is one of the best things to do for the environment while also saving time and money.
The Audubon Society of North Carolina has recently expanded its native plant guide to help many cities have awareness of what they are planting. Birds, bees and butterflies are also getting a little help from Audubon North Carolina. The nonprofit conservation organization, which has offices in Corolla, Boone, Wilmington and Chapel Hill, announced Oct. 11, in time for fall planting, that its free, downloadable guide which helps identify the best plants for wildlife by habitat has been expanded from 400 to 692 native and cultivated plants that thrive in North Carolina. Everyone from home gardeners to educational institutions to landscapers to businesses are adding native-friendly plants to their backyards. The list is a single source of recommended bird- and pollinator-friendly plants that can be filtered by habitat, food source type, animals benefited, wetland status and more. Every species thrives in a different region and this resource helps planters choose a spot for the plant where it will thrive. The wetland status option is important for many city planners and stormwater managers who want to reduce flooding and stormwater impacts in their communities.
To find native plants in your area, Audubon North Carolina provides a terrific ZIP code locator at www.nc.audubon.org where people enter their ZIP code and get not only a list of recommended bird-friendly plants native to their area, but also their nearest Audubon chapter and a list of area businesses that sell native plants. By using the ZIP code locator, gardeners, city planners, landscapers, etc. can refine the list of plants suitable for their specific area.
CWEP encourages North Carolina residents to ask their favorite garden centers to carry more native plants so they’ll become more readily available to everyone. It is also recommended to assess and learn about what is already growing in your yard as this can serve as a starting point for your native journey! The updated Audubon North Carolina list will continue to serve as a helpful resource for communities to determine which plants are native and which are not.
Stormwater runoff can come in many forms, including melting snow. Winter snow often brings a unique feel to North Carolina as it doesn’t happen often: making for beautiful photos and lots of family fun. However, it’s not long before the sun comes out to expose a host of issues created by the melting snow.
Heavy rains sweeping across your yard and driveway carry pollution and high volumes of water into our nearby streams, lakes, and other waterways. Melting snow does the same things. Both rain and snow melt can seriously impair North Carolina waters when they travel over the land in our developed communities.
In winter, melting snow actually causes a few unique stormwater problems. Because the ground is often frozen at the surface, melting snow can’t infiltrate into the soil the way a light or moderate rain would be able to. So even a small amount of snow can cause localized flooding on your property. When snow builds up over several small storm events without melting in between, it can turn into large winter storm impacts when it finally does melt – leading to potential community wide flooding events. In both cases, that standing and flowing water on the ground is picking up all kinds of debris, pollutants (especially deicing salts and chemicals), and litter that will find their way into nearby streams.
When shoveling/plowing snow this season, pay attention to where you place it. Try to pile snow in areas where it will have a chance to infiltrate, not runoff!
Winter Stormwater Pollution Prevention Tips
Start shoveling early! The more snow you remove, the less salt and sand you’ll need. Below are some do’s and don’ts when shoveling or plowing snow
Snow and Your Rain Garden
Normal snow accumulation does not pose a threat to rain gardens, so there is no need to shovel a rain garden. However, heavy snow loads can weigh down and saturate your garden and hurt plants. Pile snow uphill from the rain garden so when the snow melts the rain garden can do what it is designed to do.
Pile snow in locations with the most opportunity to infiltrate into the ground.
Pile snow in areas where water does not pond.
Clear away any snow that may have been thrown onto the storm drains
Clear your downspouts to allow melting roof snow to flow and not collect at your foundation.
Pay special attention to places that are eroding during snow melt, and make a plan to improve these areas in spring using plants that can slow and stop erosion, like native grasses and meadow plants or native trees and shrubs.
Do not pile snow on top of storm drains or near water bodies and wetlands.
Do not pile snow onto rain gardens or bio retention areas.
Do not over use de-icing chemicals and salts, and avoid spreading around sensitive areas like waterways and your private well.
Tips to Avoid Using Salt as a De-icer
More salt does not equal more melting snow. Follow product instructions when spreading deicing material and give it time to work. Sweep up any material remaining after the snow/ice melts.
Two major hurricanes hit North Carolina in the last month, and while the damage was severe to some parts of the state, damage from flooding in the Charlotte area was less than it would have been a decade ago. This is due to many years of hard work and preparation in the making.
It all started in 1995 after Tropical Storm Jerry. Charlotte homes flooded and the storm led to $5 million in property damage. However, as time passed, residents and local government officials forgot how bad the flooding had been.
It wasn’t until Hurricane Danny in 1997 that major flooding hit Charlotte again. The major difference from the ‘95 flood to the ‘97 flood was there was a number of homes that flooded, yet, they were outside of Charlotte’s mapped floodplain. This raised doubts about the accuracy of Charlotte’s floodplain maps. In addition to all of this, came pressure from people who lived in neighborhoods that flooded for the second time in three years. It was clear that local support for a new, proactive approach to flooding had to be a priority.
The first step Charlotte took was buying out homes that were in floodplains- areas that are prone to flooding because they’re right by creeks or rivers that are prone to flooding. With federal grants from FEMA, as well as funding from the county, Charlotte initiated a home buyout program. Since 1999, the program has bought out more than 400 homes in floodplains and demolished them- ultimately restoring creek and river banks over time. All in all, the buyout program cost more than $71 million. However, the buyouts have saved $27 million in property damages, according to the county. During Hurricane Florence alone, the program saved $1.9 million.
It is important to note that buying out houses and tearing them down isn’t sustainable in the long-term by itself. Stormwater flood sensors were also placed at rivers across the city. This sensor sends a beam down to the water, which then determines the distance between the sensor and the water. All of those sensors make up FINS, or the Flood Information & Notification System which track flooding in real time. Once the water elevates to where it’s going to breach over the road, the fire department then gets notified before any people or roads bear the cost. While the real time emergency notification system is useful for first responders, it didn’t solve a bigger issue Charlotte was facing- outdated maps.
Most states use the flood maps FEMA provides. However, at the time in the 1990’s, a lot of these maps hadn’t been updated for North Carolina since the 1970s. FEMA didn’t have enough money to update all the flood maps across the country constantly. So, local governments worked together to set aside a couple million dollars to map flooding. This included a new process called “future conditions floodplain mapping.” This process takes land development and use into account, and helps determine how cities can best orient themselves to avoid damage from flooding. To accurately map flooding, the state partnered with FEMA and the U.S. Geological Survey.
The program in Charlotte was getting off the ground when another hurricane hit the state in 1999, Hurricane Floyd. At this time, politicians got the North Carolina General Assembly on board with tracking rivers in real time and making future conditions floodplain maps for the state. Unfortunately, in most states, it’s hard to get legislators to budget for expensive services such as this, especially when many still rely on old maps. Other states such as Alabama and Florida partnered with North Carolina to develop similar mapping programs. States even talked to experts on flood mapping in North Carolina to help their own programs.
The Charlotte case study is a great example of efforts that could be made by other communities in flood mapping and efforts to decrease damage from flooding. The success of all the planning and preparation is credited to a willingness for the city, county and state to adapt. Ultimately, the answer that worked was a “no” to flood prevention, and “yes” to damage prevention.
Continuing with our lead-up to “Imagine a Day Without Water”, this post focuses on the recent disaster-related impacts of failing infrastructure from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, some of the most powerful storms to hit the United States in many years. There is currently a capital need of $123 billion per year to close the gap between increasing demand and decreasing maintenance of water infrastructure – and this gap is widening every day.
At the intersection of both negligence and disaster-caused infrastructure lies Puerto Rico. The country, recently hit by Hurricane Maria, has very little functioning infrastructure, and many residents will be without power for up to six months. Therefore, they are without access to water and sewer infrastructure as well. Seeing as Maria was the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico in almost 80 years, it would be easy to assume that the current infrastructure issues are the result of the unprecedented storm. However, as Dr. Yarimar Bonilla, Rutgers professor and Puerto Rican native, points out in a recent NPR segment, the problem started long before with the government’s decision to prioritize paying off debt rather than performing basic maintenance on the country’s electric, water, and wastewater systems. She notes that much of the damage could have been avoided if the proper maintenance work had been done when it was necessary. Now, with the addition of the storm damage, the issue is much more difficult (and costly) to solve. Listen to the full podcast here.
In Florida, Hurricane Irma overloaded local infrastructure, causing physical damage and health risks. Raw sewage and wastewater flooded the streets as a result of failed pumping stations and backed up sewers. Due to overwhelmed and under-maintained infrastructure, rebuilding will take even longer, as efforts can only begin when the area is “clean, dry, and free from potential health hazards.” The situation in Florida points to the necessity of designing infrastructure systems to fit local needs, such as extreme weather. Read more about the affects of Hurricane Irma on infrastructure here.
Keeping our natural waterways clean is important, but so is making sure our manmade water systems stay so as well. Make sure your local, state, and federal officials know you value investing in our nation’s infrastructure!
Our everyday activities can really contribute to stormwater pollution if we aren’t careful. Trash, litter, pet waste, sediment, fertilizers, oil, you name it – it can end up in the storm drain and on its way to the nearest stream before you know it! Of course, that pollution can have a major impact on the fish and other animals that live in those streams, ponds, and rivers where the pollution ends up. What would happen if the fish could tell us they didn’t appreciate us sharing our dirty stormwater with them?
Check out the video below to see what happened when Jonny Fishpatrick was fed up with the stormwater pollution being dumped in his home, and imagine how this could be happening in your neighborhood!
When soil, dirt, sand, clay, or other tiny bits of earth end up in stormwater, we then call it “sediment” because those pieces can eventually settle out to the bottom of a body of water. However, moving water such as stormwater runoff through our neighborhoods and cities keeps the sediment from settling and can cause serious problems for water quality.
What does sediment do in the environment?
Sediment pollution creates many issues in the environment; here are just a few!
Clogs fish gills and suffocates small insects and other animals;
Creates murky, cloudy water that blocks sunlight from reaching plants;
Transports hundreds of other chemicals and pollutants to our drinking water that are hitching a ride on the sediment;
Encourages growth of toxic algae that can make people and animals sick;
Completely changes the course of a river or stream by depositing new banks!
What can we do to reduce stormwater pollution from sediment?
Sediment can come from many sources, such as construction sites or digging, erosion when vegetation has been removed, and even just dust and grime from your driveway, car, and sidewalk. You can help keep this dirt from getting in our streams and rivers by sweeping up instead of hosing down!
If you see muddy brown water being deliberately sent into the storm drain like in the photo below, or if you see lots of sediment coming from a construction site, call your local water department (contact info here) and let them know right away.