A sign along a riverwalk, warning of possible combined sewage overflows
during wet weather events. Photo by Sara Powell
A few weeks back, Dr. Brinkmann posted a photo to Facebook showing a pool of water on the surface of a road. The sky was cloudy, so I assumed it was just after a rain. Under his post I commented that I am completely obsessed with this. He agreed. And our nerdiness bore the idea for this post. Our obsession is with stormwater runoff. In most cities, when it rains, impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops prevent water from absorbing (or infiltrating) into the soil. Instead, stormwater pools and runs off these hardened surfaces typically to low points in the city, such as storm drains or nearby waterways.
|Stormwater Runoff. Photo by Sara Powell.|
There are two fundamental problems here. The first is when stormwater runs across hardened surfaces, it picks up trash and pollutants from cars, power plant emissions, and other sources, which eventually make their way into local waterways. The second is that stormwater runoff often overwhelms urban stormwater conveyance systems (both the treatment plants and the pipes themselves). In many cities, the volume of runoff has increased as our cities expand outward, hardening up the landscape through construction of roads and buildings. Existing urban water conveyance systems and treatment plants were not designed to handle the growing volumes of stormwater that are added to the systems. In other words, the systems can’t keep up with the growth. This is particularly deleterious when sewer and stormwater systems are combined – which is the case for most older cities in the Northeast. So as cities experience what can often just be a fraction of an inch of rain, the systems overflow and sewage and polluted stormwater runoff flow into local waterways. Add to this scenario climate change and increasingly fragmented communities, and you can see why this is such a challenge. However, the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other state and local regulations compel metropolitan regions to address the issue.
But here is the good thing. There are some unique ways that communities are trying to address these issues. From technical approaches such as sustainable drainage systems, to community-driven approaches such as ecodistrict planning, and many iterations in between; municipalities are realizing that multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and community based projects have created the most overall good in communities, while also meeting water quality regulations. This should sound familiar to sustainability aficionados. These are urban water governance strategies that are locally negotiated with a wide range of stakeholders participating in the process, producing outcomes that create multiple benefits for communities. Think here of a riverwalk that serves as a recreational space, riparian restoration, and expanded floodplain to mitigate flooding. Or green stormwater infrastructure that captures stormwater before it is introduced into the system, while simultaneously enhancing biodiversity and increasing community greenspace.
sign along a river, warning of possible combined sewage |
overflows during wet weather events. Photo credit Sara Powell.
But the point isn't about the specific strategy or technology, really. Sustainability is not so much about its definition or outcome as it is about the process. In my view, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder, and it cannot be defined by a minority or devoid of context. In other words, true sustainability must be negotiated at the local level by all community members. Of course, there will be teeth gnashing – and the projects I allude to above are not without their problems – but all 'new' things take time to work out.
Expertise in sustainability will be critical to designing, implementing, and monitoring projects like these. If you live in a city, I would bet you are dealing with some sort of water issue. I encourage you to get involved. Go to public meetings and make your opinion heard. Educate your neighbors. Strengthen your personal conservation approaches. But most of all, consider the ways sustainability could be implemented in your community, and get to work.
Michael Finewood is an assistant professor of Geography and Sustainability in Chatham University’s Falk School of Sustainability. His interests are in water, climate change, and urban sustainability.