WMEAC: Flood was a powerful Earth Day lesson

It was a very interesting way to celebrate Earth Day. We had been looking forward to a fantastic third annual Grand River Green Up, but unfortunately we had to reschedule the event to Saturday, June 1, because of a historic flood.
May 17, 2013


In fact, many of the volunteers that had intended on helping clean up the river during the Green Up instead came out to protect the river in a different way — helping fill sandbags to protect the City of Grand Rapids wastewater treatment plant and other key community assets over Earth Day weekend.

As a community, we should be proud of how well we responded to nature. But we need to remember that nature itself is our first and best ally. We need to build a stronger partnership with the quantifiable power of our natural resources to respond to this issue every day, not just when compelled by the drama of floods.

For the past three years, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council has been working to help people in the Grand River watershed understand the need for improved stormwater management in our communities. There is no better evidence of the message we’ve been delivering than this flood. West Michigan must find new ways to manage stormwater in order to reduce the impact of storms on our communities.

Our climate is changing. WMEAC is currently working on a report and recommendations for reinventing municipal operations to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change and mitigate its climate impact.

Although that study is far from complete, we can share that scientific models of climate change in the Great Lakes region predict more frequent and more intense storms, a la the Flood of 2013. How do we move our communities forward and respond to climate change’s impact on our water system?

A similar study we performed last year for the City of Grand Rapids suggested that most flooding can be mitigated, and we need not look further than nature to discover our solutions.

We build our cities, neighborhoods, churches, synagogues, malls, etc., to channel stormwater away from them and into a system of man-made storm drains and a web of pipes under our roads. Water then drains into our creeks, streams and rivers.

But nature has given us better tools to fight flooding. Our natural landscapes — forests, grasslands, wetlands — do a much better job of gathering stormwater and sending it back into the waterways.

To the extent that we can mimic these natural systems with Low Impact Development practices such as urban tree plantings, native plants, rain gardens and bio swales, we can help prevent stormwater overload to our water systems. What’s more, native plants are proven to capture not just stormwater, but the pollutants in stormwater, making our water safer and cleaner.

Conventional stormwater sewer systems can’t achieve that.

Finally, studies demonstrate that "green" infrastructure and low-impact development applications are typically more affordable to maintain than traditional infrastructure. Why insist on doing a job that nature can do better and more affordably?

Across our watershed, community by community, we need to change our development policies and practices to incentivize "green" infrastructure and low-impact development practices.

If we fail to invest in more and better "green" infrastructure, and continue to haphazardly develop the Grand River Watershed, WMEAC can promise that our globally unique freshwater system will continue to be degraded. Our financially taxed communities will continue to struggle to invest in failing infrastructure, costing us more over time to maintain the same quality of life and economic competitiveness. More will be spent on reactive and emergency response, and to repair crumbling infrastructure. And our water resource, economy and quality of life will suffer.

We can work with nature or against it. Considering the events of this particularly timely Earth Day, the evidence is clearly pointing to a productive investment in a partnership with Mother Nature.

— By Daniel Schoonmaker, member services director for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.


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