Managing Stormwater

Recent storms walloped our region with significant flooding and erosion, causing property damage and costly repairs for landowners and municipalities. These storms brought untold loads of dirt and nutrients – the key ingredients for weeds and harmful algal blooms – to our lakes. With respect to the storm in Chautauqua County on May 21, “I’ve never seen anything like it” seemed to be the consensus.

According to statistics compiled on a joint collaborative website between the Northeast Regional Climate Center and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the areas hardest hit by that storm experienced rainfall rates with an estimated 2 percent chance of occurrence in any given year formerly referred to as a 50-year rainfall event. Therefore, it’s no surprise it resulted in severe flooding and erosion. It was far more water than our soils could absorb, so runoff happened almost immediately. The rapid rise in streamflow chewed into stream channels and hillsides, eroding unbelievable amounts of dirt and moving whole trees.

Thus, there was some irony to Southern Tier West Regional Planning & Development Board’s first-annual Stormwater Management Demonstration Day at the Cattaraugus County Public Works Campus on May 22. There, students from Alfred State College and vendors, along with Soil & Water Conservation District staff and consultants, constructed and discussed stormwater management tools and techniques suitable for our region relatively easy to build and cost-effective for our communities. Practices were installed that could benefit everyone: from private landowners (bioswales, rain gardens, pavers, etc.) to developers (those same tools, plus pervious pavement, erosion control socks and mats) to highway personnel (check dams, hydroseeding and sediment traps).

Over 130 people attended the field-based demonstration of treatments designed to slow stormwater runoff. Participants included staff from planning and zoning boards, code enforcement officers, mayors and supervisors, highway departments, consultants, academia and others. The recent storms raised the question, “Why bother with all these techniques if a big storm is going to rip them up anyway?” The answer is more obvious than it might seem: those really big storms happen relatively infrequently. On the other hand, runoff from smaller rain and snowmelt events, combined with the ways that we’ve “plumbed our watersheds” to get water off as quickly as possible, is resulting in chronic flooding and erosion.

Historically, when there’s been a problem with flooding and erosion, the “cleanup crew” – i.e. county and local highway departments and soil and water districts get the calls. And for good reason. They deal with these issues every day. What is less well known, but becoming more apparent, is that usually by the time they’re called, it’s too late. The future of cost-effective stormwater management needs to be more proactive and less reactive. It entails everyone working together to reduce the volume of runoff sent directly to a stream or ditch. For landowners and developers, it means holding some of that water on their private lands and allowing it to soak back into the ground so that less of it runs off immediately after the storm. Highway departments may need to use some new or different techniques that reduce the amount of water in their ditches and the speed at which it travels. Municipal officials may have to consider local laws directing private landowners to manage their water so that flooding can be reduced, along with the cost to taxpayers to repair municipal infrastructure.

The changes for managing stormwater are not always easy nor necessarily welcome. Compared to some of our really big storms, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that a lot of flooding and erosion commonly happens with the smaller storms. Southern Tier West and their growing coalition of watershed stakeholders recognize the value of demonstrating cost-effective stormwater management techniques to help bring greater awareness to the issue. Through a partnership with Cattaraugus County Department of Public Works, Southern Tier West has established the demonstrations as permanent installations on the Public Works’ campus for anyone to view. Whether you’re a homeowner, a contractor or a municipal official, stop by, take a look and plan on attending next year’s Demo Day. If everybody does a little bit to address this serious issue, together we could make a big difference.

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May 21, 2014 rainfall data from Chautauqua County-Jamestown Airport, Falconer Water Treatment Plant, trained National Weather Service spotters at Bemus Point and Mayville. Website referenced is the Extreme Precipitation in New York & New England; An Interactive Web Tool for Extreme Precipitation Analysis.

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The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.