Connecting Communities With Better Stormwater Management (Part I)

This past week, the Southern Tier West Regional Planning Board, in cooperation with the STW Watershed Coalition, held its first annual Stormwater Management Conference for public officials in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. I was able to attend as part of a healthy contingent of municipal officials from Chautauqua County. The title of the conference was, “Connecting Communities with Better Stormwater Management.” In attendance were 85 municipal officials and a number of engineers and other resource managers, such as representatives from the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus County Soil & Water Conservation Districts.

The first presenter was Kim Sherwood, a forest hydrologist, private consultant and current president of the Conewango Creek Watershed Association. He explained what a watershed is and why it is important for municipal board members, code officers and public works officials to understand how watersheds and stream systems function. He noted that municipal officials have to deal with flood damage to homes, property, croplands, roads, bridges and drainage systems. He noted that, for many rural towns, roughly 70 percent of a town’s budget is spent to maintain roads, bridges and associated drainage systems. The incremental suburban development of a house lot here and a house lot there, along with their associated impervious surfaces of roof tops, driveways and compacted lawns, can greatly increase the amount of stormwater runoff that is handled in municipal culverts and drainage-ways to the point that runoff that was sufficiently contained 40 years ago now gets blown out in a storm.

The municipalities’ taxpayers are left paying to repair and replace costly infrastructure because homeowners and businesses, in most communities, have not been required to manage, detain and infiltrate their stormwater on site. Sherwood showed that development of homes and businesses, if not properly designed to manage runoff, results in costs to municipalities downhill and downstream.

Sherwood also noted that, in the past, the mantra was to get the water off the land as quickly as possible to the nearest stream. That principle resulted in concentrated flows of water high energy causing widespread flooding and erosion as well as sedimentation damage to our streams and lakes.

The thinking now is to “hold your water.” When developing new sites or redeveloping established ones, landowners need to be responsible and 1) minimize their disturbance of the land surface so that trees and other vegetation can function to hold, filter and uptake water, 2) to minimize the creation of impervious surfaces in order to minimize runoff, and 3) to use a series of approaches to trap, hold, use and infiltrate runoff on private land in order to keep it from escaping to and overwhelming community-owned road ditches or storm drains and waterways downstream.

He showed photos of floodplains and riparian (stream-side) natural vegetated buffers as landscape features essential to holding and filtering runoff and reducing downstream flood and erosion damage. He highlighted the Center for Watershed Protection’s Eight Tools of Watershed “Investment” (Protection). He also suggested visiting the Center for Watershed Protection’s website at www.cwp.org/ for more information on this topic.

The second featured speaker at the conference was Donald W. Lake Jr., the professional engineer who has been a principal author of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s stormwater manuals. A question-and-answer panel discussion featuring Don McCord (senior planner with the Chautauqua County Department of Planning and Economic Development), Sally Carlson (supervisor from North Harmony), Brian Davis (district field manager at the Cattaraugus County Soil & Water Conservation District), and a highway superintendent and civil engineer completed the conference agenda.

Part II next week will cover specific practices that landowners and municipalities can take as presented by Lake.

The mission of the CWC is to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. The CWC has conserved 718 acres of lands across Chautauqua County over the last twenty years. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy invites the public to sign up for its e-news at its website and/or “like” the organization on Facebook, to receive the most up to date information on CWC and upcoming lake and watershed related programs and events. Please call 664-2166 or visit our website for more information.