Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson - RTX3DKUO

The Impacts of Heavy Rainfall on the Environment

The recent rain events this past week caused extreme flash flooding throughout the Northeast region. Parkways, streets, and metro or subway stations in New York, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts flooded leaving motorists, pedestrians, and commuters stranded and exposed to horrid conditions. I have become worrisome, not particularly of the increase in the intensity and frequency of torrential downpours, but of our current incapacity and mismanagement to handle all of this water. Every time we face intense rain, I have to think to myself: What towns or streets will face flooding? Who would want to walk through a transit system with murky water past their ankles with absolutely no knowledge of what bacteria or toxins lurk in that water? How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems? Are we really placing public and environmental health, safety, and the quality of life for all as a top priority? Climate change has brought an increase of rain intensity and frequency. Rainfall intensity is the measure of the amount of rain that falls during a period of time while rainfall frequency is the amount of times it rains during a specified period of years. An increase in air and water temperature brings an increase of precipitation.  But we cannot isolate climate change, we must also pay close attention to the factors that it engages with. I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems. All of these factors exacerbate flooding and can be detrimental to our water systems.

Impervious Surfaces…

The large surface area of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs, that have replaced our natural landscape, do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground and speeds up the process of rainwater runoff entering the drainage systems. The runoff and the pollutants collected from impervious surfaces are either turning into floods or entering our water systems at a faster rate than it can be managed.

Lack of Greenspaces…

This kind of ties in with impervious surfaces. I think it’s safe to say that the more impervious surfaces we create, the less access to greenspace we have. Greenspace is extremely crucial. It provides benefits such as reducing and filtering polluted stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, and improving air quality. When we lack greenspace, we have to deal with a lot of preventable challenges. With a lack of soil and vegetation to absorb and filter the rainfall, we experience flooding and overloaded sewers. With a lack of vegetation, we experience an increase in air temperature (Note what I stated earlier about the effects of an increase in air temperature).

Outdated Infrastructures and Sewer Systems…

The outdated infrastructures and the combined sewer systems were built only to hold a certain capacity of rainfall. In addition, transit systems and roadways aren’t effectively updated or repaired. Poor management leads our infrastructures to dilapidate and become swamps. In the recent floods, water leaked through the concrete vaulted ceilings of the WMATA Capitol South metro station. In a few of New York’s subway stations, water entered through the ceiling and stairways flooding the stations. Combined sewer systems are typically found in older cities. When the capacity of the system is surpassed, the untreated wastewater and stormwater runoff flows into our waterways or can back up into buildings through the pipes or overflow from the storm drains onto the streets.

 

GW Parkway

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

GW Parkway at DCA

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax

Flooded street on Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax, Virginia

Capitol South Metro_02

Water leaking through concrete vaulted ceiling in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Capitol South Metro

Flooding conditions in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_03

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

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Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_03

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Now What…

With climate change there will be an increase of storm intensity and frequency, but how do we plan and design for worsening conditions? As the climate changes we must adapt our habits, the way we design, and our management of infrastructure. Stormwater management practices are used to reduce stormwater runoff, control flooding, reduce erosion, and improve water quality. These practices include green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), flood control reservoirs, and tunnels (SMART Tunnel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Deep Tunnel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin addresses flash flooding and stores millions of gallons of overflow and sewage). Green infrastructure can be used to not only address our stormwater issues but to beautify our communities by creating healthy environments. Just imagine walking, driving, or riding your bike down a green street filled with a canopy of trees, native vegetation, GSI interventions, enhanced sidewalks, public art, and other street design features. A green street utilizes green infrastructure, improves public health and safety, and can even yield economic benefits.

We also have to contemplate all of the paved vacant lots or unused parking lots. For an example, malls all over the United States have an immense amount of parking.  What can we do with these spaces? These are opportunities to implement green infrastructure and green spaces for public spaces that can incorporate activities, pop-up spaces, farmers markets, etc.

In addition to the stormwater management practices, the timely repair and maintenance of infrastructure needs to be a requirement or else it will not function properly. Also, funding should be appropriately allocated to ensure that the proper solutions are identified and instated.

The strategies will not be the same in every location because the approach should be acclimated to the specific needs of that region based on in-depth analysis, research, and community engagement. However, with careful and purposeful consideration and action we can move in the right direction. I leave you with this: How can you be a part of the movement to create safe, equitable, and sustainable infrastructures and communities?

 

Jazmin Kimble is a Geo-Designer, Urban Designer, and Architectural Designer from Long Island, NY. She has a passion for empowering and planning adequate, equitable communities through the lens of Geodesign, Urban Design, Community Development, Sustainability, Environmental Solutions, and Community Engagement. Jazmin believes the culture and the history of a community is what makes it unique. This approach allows her to design with communities from a holistic viewpoint.

JimenaBlog

Using Public Art to Bring Visibility to Water Infrastructure

There is no doubt that our nation’s infrastructure systems need to be upgraded and water infrastructure is no exception. Water and wastewater infrastructures are aging and in need of replacement and rehabilitation; in fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructures a grade of ‘D’ in 2013. Furthermore, climate change, increasing populations, and insufficient funds are likely to exacerbate these challenges and without strong public support, water infrastructure improvements may not be given the priority they deserve.

Throughout my time as a water engineer, I have concluded that most people generally understand the importance of strong and reliable water infrastructure systems, yet they are not familiar with the processes required to treat and manage water, wastewater, and stormwater, as well as the issues currently faced by these types of infrastructure systems. Unless there is a pipe burst, a water shortage, a sewer overflow, or a tragedy like Flint, water systems and their current condition are not usually part of everyday conversations.

So why do most people take water infrastructure for granted? In my consideration, the main reason is that water systems are set up to make us forget about them. Compared to other infrastructures, like roads and bridges, these systems are buried, hidden, or placed far away from communities. How many times do we think about the water we use when we open the water faucet or flush the toilet?

While pursuing my master’s in urban and regional planning, I became interested in public art and placemaking. However, while browsing an issue of Public Art Review, I realized that my new interests could be the way to make water infrastructure systems more visible. When properly integrated, public art not only makes water infrastructure systems noticeable, but makes them of the urban fabric.

A great example of the integration of public art in water infrastructure is the Brightwater Treatment Plant, a wastewater facility in King County, Washington, which I visited in August 2016.  The plant successfully integrates public art throughout the treatment process. The public art not only has made the plant visible, but part of the neighborhood’s urban fabric. The community continuously comes to walk around the beautiful gardens and check out the public art. In fact, it has become so popular that community center is used for wedding receptions!

But the public art has also been a way to educate the community about the treatment of wastewater. This is the case of Buster Simpson’s BioBoulevard, a (shown here), a public art piece that is also a reclaimed water pipeline. Working closely with engineers, this purple pipe tells the story of the marine outfall discharging to Puget Sound. The portholes on top of the pipe expose the water to the sun and allow the chlorine to off-gas, while representing the oxygen diffusers in the actual outfall. “Do not drink” is written in all languages represented in King County throughout the pipeline.

JimenaBlog JimenaBlog2

Although procuring, creating, installing, and maintaining public art requires money, time, and experience, bringing public artists into the development of infrastructure can be rewarding and beneficial. So, as I continue my professional career, I challenge my fellow engineers and planners concerned with water infrastructure: why not use public art to bring visibility and engage the public to address some of the concerns?

 

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.

Department of Defense

Houston, No America, We Have A Problem!

Department of Defense
Department of Defense

 Unless you have been living under a rock, you have seen the news and know the devastation Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath has caused in Southeast Texas. When we witness such tragedy on a large scale, we immediately begin discussing ways to prevent it; however, flooding is an everyday occurrence in many cities across the United States. While this flooding in the human environment may not be enough to blanket a city or trap people in their homes, it’s enough to destroy property; cause waterborne illnesses; cause loss of life; destroy crops; and impede access to essential public services such as ambulances and firetrucks. The aforementioned list is by no means exhaustive but a snippet to illustrate some of the impacts of flooding. Sadly, it doesn’t take a hurricane to have this impact. Heavy rainfall or even sustained rainfall over a long period of time can be just as destructive.

Unfortunately, climate change is causing more frequent and extreme weather events. Unless we take action to mitigate the damage caused by these wet weather events, we will see more devastation in our communities. As an environmental engineer who happens to work on stormwater management issues, here are a few of my thoughts on the topic.

1. Preservation of natural resources – Wetlands (marshes, swamps, bogs, ponds) are land areas covered by water that consist of plant and animal life. In the context of flood control, wetlands help protect against storm surges by serving as an intermediary between larger waterbodies and land. Unfortunately, development often destroys this natural barrier allowing more water to reach land and without filtration. Jurisdictions should include preservation of natural resources as they update their land use plans, comprehensive plans, and/or zoning laws.

2. Getting smarter about growth – During wet weather events, water is looking for a place to go. Water naturally seeps into the ground; however, many of our cities are covered in asphalt, concrete, and other impenetrable barriers. This surface water runoff can overwhelm our sewers and become stuck in areas where there is little flow. In addition, waterfronts are being developed with housing and commercial space without regards to rising water levels due to climate change. As this land erodes it will impact these places that are now high value corridors of living and entertainment. Despite these challenges, waterfronts are and will continue to be popular locations for development. Developments should consider sea level rise or consider new design techniques such as floodable buildings.

3. Increase in green infrastructure -Trees, rain gardens, green roofs, bio swales, pervious pavement, rain barrels and constructed wetlands are a newer approach to managing surface water runoff. Many urban areas are using green infrastructure as a tool to imitate the natural process that should occur after wet weather events by adding soils and other vegetation back into the ecosystem. Green infrastructure has to be a part of a larger strategy to effectively minimize the impact of wet weather as well as place making in communities.

4. Increase and maintain gray infrastructure – Poor drainage, lack of maintenance, infrastructure not designed for high density populations are all issues impacting our existing gray infrastructure such as storm drains, storm sewers, holding tanks, dams and levees. In fact, both dams and levees received a grade D on the American Society of Civil Engineers 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. New gray infrastructure as well as the maintenance of older infrastructure are important components in preventing the outcomes we often witness in wet weather events.

The damage and destruction that we witnessed post Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey are not isolated to these extreme wet weather events. Until we extend our conversations and more importantly our action to maintenance and prevention, we will continue to play Monday morning quarterback. Unfortunately, it’s more than a football game at stake. Lives depend on it. America, we have a problem!

P.S. Extreme wet weather events are occurring globally but for the purposes of  making this blog brief, I limited the issue to the United States of America.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.





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