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Protecting Communities from Growing Flood Concerns

Do you feel like every spring goes down as the wettest on record? Doesn’t it seem that you’re always hearing about another 100-year flood?

It’s not your imagination—the weather is changing. Rainfall patterns are shifting. Spring floods are becoming more severe. Images of flood-damaged transportation infrastructure, commercial properties, and residential neighborhoods are common on the daily news.

So, why is this happening, and what can your community do to protect itself? According to Mark Land, PE, Vice President of Snyder & Associates, community resilience to flooding and other weather-related concerns begins with a comprehensive approach to planning and communication.

Communities often reach out for help after horrific flooding has occurred, but planning in advance is possible,” he shares. “We help communities understand the impacts that ever-increasing rainfalls will have and help them improve their resiliency before damage occurs.

Climate Changes Require Additional Flood Protection Planning

While we may not experience record-breaking rainfall every year, historical data indicates that average annual rainfall rates are trending upward. Understanding how rainfall patterns are changing and the impacts that may result in terms of stormwater management is the first step in community preparation.

Increasing development and urbanization coupled with climate changes are having a profound effect on communities. For residents living near the Hamilton Drain Watershed, a combination of stormwater wetlands and upsized culverts provided a dramatic shift in flood protection.

According to the most recent  NOAA Climate Report, the average annual precipitation in the U.S. during 2020 was 30.28 inches, 0.34 inches above average.  This measure earned its place, ranking in the middle third of the national historic precipitation record. Spread out over an entire year, that might not seem like much to be concerned about. But, the change in rainfall patterns is about more than just the average amount of precipitation that falls each year. It’s about how and when storm events occur.

“In spring, storms typically move southwest to northeast, which is perpendicular to river basins. Despite the fact that a storm may not track a single basin, flooding is still possible because frozen ground inhibits stormwater infiltration.”

For example, in early May 2019 after days of rain and snowmelt, a temporary barrier protecting Davenport, Iowa failed. The record-setting high Missouri river rushed into the community’s historic downtown, submerging it for weeks. Parks and playgrounds became lakes. Streets became rivers. Flood damage to businesses and infrastructure exceeded $3.5 million, according to city officials. 

In the Central U.S., summer precipitation has become more variable, with intense thunderstorms that produce high amounts of rain and runoff.

Generally speaking, Klocke says spring and summer storms move parallel with the direction of river basins, setting up the potential for a thunderstorm to lineup and track along a particular basin. When these circumstances occur, a single storm can dump massive amounts of rain on a single basin, inundating the drainage system and causing widespread flooding. However, flooding isn’t specific to one season.

Extreme weather events that produce quick bursts of heavy precipitation over a short timeframe can overwhelm urban systems and regional watersheds, which leads to flooding,” explains Steve Klocke, PE, Civil Engineer for Snyder & Associates.

Updating Public Infrastructure Design Standards to Withstand Climate Change

In response to changing weather and rainfall patterns, regulatory agencies and communities are being challenged to prepare and make proactive adjustments to reduce the risk of current and future flooding.

“Drainage structures built 75, 50, or even just 10 years ago may not have been designed to handle the higher precipitation amounts of today,” states Klocke.

As an example, Klocke highlights neighborhood development in the 40s and 50s. At the time, he says there wasn’t much data on how big pipes should be. It was also common for creeks to be filled in. When these neighborhoods become inundated with the heavy, intense storms of present-day, it’s evident that pipes and drainage structures from decades ago are undersized.

“Large rain events overwhelm undersized pipes. Water flows overland where creeks once were, putting residential homes at risk for flooding,” he adds.

The data used to develop design standards has been largely based on data from the past 100 years. However, Klocke says that’s changing because planning for flood resiliency is about more than the data we have. SUDAS design standards are evolving, and the focus is turning towards taking into account what science is predicting, rather than what’s already occurred.

In light of changing weather patterns and the new design standards that result, communities may find that the level of service and protection their drainage infrastructure provides may no longer be sufficient.

Common Flood Types & Stormwater Management Best Practices

For communities experiencing drainage system concerns, Klocke and his colleagues begin by analyzing the performance of the system and how it functions within its watershed. Hydrologic and hydraulic modeling are used to provide insight on runoff volume as well as how water flows and the paths it will take. In the Midwest, three types of flooding are common:

vegetation used as decoration on a wall

Live Walls and other green infrastructure components provide aesthetic appeal and assist with stormwater management in urban environments.

  1. River Flooding
    The most common type of flood event in which a body of water exceeds its capacity. This type of flooding typically results from high amounts of precipitation over a long period of time.
  2. Urban Flooding
    Excessive runoff and inadequate drainage to sewer systems, rivers, lakes, and streams in an urban area can lead to urban flooding. Water-covered streets and neighborhoods are common with urban flooding.
  3. Sewer Backup
    Blocked sanitary mains, aging sewer systems, the intrusion of tree roots, and other problems can push wastewater back up into homes and businesses through pipes from the sewer or drainage system. Properties in low-lying areas are at the highest risk of sewer backup, which is unpleasant and harmful to human health.

Improving Flood Resiliency: Options for Communities & Property Owners

If a community drainage system is determined to be insufficient, recommendations are provided to improve stormwater management and strengthen community resilience. Potential suggestions for stormwater management and flood mitigation may include:

Property Buyouts
In areas with high flood risk, a community may want to explore strategic buyouts of affected properties to help relieve the burden on residents. This option is often less expensive than infrastructure improvements and it provides opportunities for stormwater detention basins or public space improvements.

Backflow Valves
To prevent sewer backup, it’s often wise for property owners in low-lying areas to install sewer backflow valves. Installed on the sewer service entering a home, a sewer backflow valve prevents sewage from pushing back up into a property.

Green Infrastructure
Permeable pavers, rain gardens, green roofs, live walls, and other green infrastructure components, help promote stormwater management and infiltration in urban environments.

small pond as stormwater management structure with ducks on it

Native plants and grasses, like those utilized within the Prairie Heritage Civic Center Plaza, add to the aesthetic appeal while assisting with stormwater management and infiltration.

Native Landscapes
In place of traditional grass and shrub landscaping, native plants are a smart alternative. The use of native plants helps promote stormwater infiltration due to robust root systems that creating space within the ground. Additional benefits of native landscapes include improved water quality, biodiversity, and livability, as well as reduced maintenance and associated costs.

Flood Control & Infrastructure Improvements
Oftentimes, the most appropriate way to address rising floodwaters is to provide additional conveyance capacity or storage. The Hamilton Drain project in Polk County, Iowa is a great example of this option. In this instance, a combination of stormwater wetlands and upsized culverts provided a dramatic shift in flood protection for the neighborhoods involved. This area, which previously experienced flooding on a nearly annual basis, is now able to withstand extreme flood events, such as the June 2018 storm that brought over 10 inches of rain.

Preventing Future Flooding through Comprehensive Stormwater Management

Understanding what options are right for your community can be a challenge. And as we look towards the future, Klocke says growing communities have special concerns. While addressing the increase in runoff that results from land development, you must also ensure that infrastructure is designed, built, and maintained to handle the strength and intensity of the changing climate.

“When it comes to helping a community determine the proactive approach that’s right for their unique circumstances, we take a comprehensive approach that accounts for future forecasts because the actions we take today are essential to prepare us for what’s ahead.”

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