Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Managing stormwater today; a new type of rainy day fund

As we move into November in the Northeast I have begun the ritual preparations for what is directly ahead of us, winter!  The wood is stacked, the oil tank is full, and the outside hoses and spigots stored and turned off.  This is part of life in a cold climate and something that most have done already or plan to do soon to hedge the odds of surviving another winter season with minimal damage.  This type of preparation increases our resiliency to the unpredictability of the season.
In the same way, the towns and cities we live in plan and prepare.  This is part of our culture, our way of life.  But how do we prepare for the unknown and the pressures and challenges of the future?  Is it part of our plan?
In considering this question I am reminded of the old Iroquois tradition as they convened their council meetings.  Prior to the meeting they invoked this declaration:  In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.
For the Iroquois, this inter-generational format of government codified a direct relationship between policy and ecology.   Today we may not give the same consideration to the needs and survival of those who will be in the same positions of authority 150 in the future, but there is a growing understanding that longer-term planning isn’t just good for the environment, it also makes sense economically and for the human safety of the population now and in the future.

In this respect the word “resiliency” is increasingly becoming part of a new planning strategy.  Community resilience can be defined as the degree to which a community is capable of organizing itself to Increase its capacity for learning from past disasters and bouncing back from future disasters[1].  A 2010 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration identifies “communities that actively engage in hazard and resiliency planning are less prone to disaster, recover faster from disasters which do occur, and endure less economic hardship than those communities that do not.”[2] Preparedness includes an emphasis on non-structural planning controls such as land use planning and buffer protection, as well as stormwater controls like Low Impact Development (LID).  Together these programmatic approaches constitute a Green Infrastructure (GI) approach to controlling stormwater drainage and pollution in a watershed or municipal setting.
Over the past year the UNH Stormwater Center has been involved in a project funded by the NERRs Science Collaborative focused on getting GI and LID into the DNA of local and watershed wide planning efforts.  In this project we have been working with a team of experts that includes an advisory board comprised of representatives from coastal decision makers throughout the area.  In some of the early meetings the advisory board challenged the project team to define what exactly it would look like in the future when a local community had achieved success.  This was a remarkable challenge and something that I had been thinking about for quite some time, but had never thought to put it into writing.  Over the preceding 6 months we tried to define stormwater planning success and the approach became what we referred to as the “complete community approach” to stormwater management.  The complete community approach is an attempt to blue print just what communities with a focus on resiliency should be doing to prepare for the pressures and challenges of the future.  The approach involves six fundamental and linked efforts that include:
1)      Adopt ordinances and regulations with new development that mandate the use of stormwater filtration and infiltration practices for reducing runoff.
2)      Require improved stormwater controls for reducing runoff with redevelopment or other significant improvements such as repaving or building renovations.
3)      Employ conservation strategies such as protecting naturally vegetated buffers and limiting the size or percentage of allowable impervious area.
4)      Reduce existing impervious area through targeted stormwater retrofits in high impact locations. 
5)      Make a long-term commitment to fund and maintain stormwater controls along with an accounting mechanism to track long-term benefits. Consider innovative funding mechanisms such as impact fees or stormwater utilities.
6)      Provide opportunities for outreach by sharing plans and progress with citizens through community newsletters, cable access, and on-site signs that explain what steps are being taken to protect or improve the community’s waterways.
Fortunately, many communities in the area are already well on their way towards implementing the complete approach.  For those just starting to plan there are some great resources available including model stormwater standards that are available on the Southeast Watershed Alliance’s website: http://southeastwatershedalliance.org/wordpress/wp-ontent/uploads/2013/05/Final_SWA_SWStandards_Dec_20121.pdf

Implementing these standards in your community can be done with very little effort and will check off items 1 & 2 of the list above.   This is all part of a long-term commitment to more resilient communities. Resilience takes time.  We are not used to planning for what is not right in front of us but what may be 5 or 10 years in the future.  In the wake of extreme weather events, and increased pollution from impervious surfaces that have been causing many problems over the past several years we can at least respond that we are planning for the future when asked the question, are we prepared for the next storm?

[1] Adapted from the Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction. 2005. Grand Challenges for Disaster Resilience. National Science Technology Council, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Washington, D.C.: National Science and Technology Council.

[2] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal Services Center (2010).  Final Research Report: Hazard and Resiliency Planning: Perceived Benefits and Barriers Among Land Use Planners. http://www.csc.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/sites/default/files/files/1366390536/hazard-and-resiliency-planning.pdf

James Houle, M.A., CPSWQ., PhD Candidate, Program Manager, The UNH Stormwater Center, Environmental Research Group, Dept of Civil Engineering, University of New Hampshire

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