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Guest column: Record rainfall highlights the need for improved infrastructure

Monday, June 6, 2011   (0 Comments)
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We finished this April with more precipitation than we’ve seen in Grand Rapids since 1976: 17.22 inches of melted snow and rain. These April showers brought more than May flowers. They brought a harsh reminder of the need for infrastructure investment in Grand Rapids and cities like it across the state. The Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association, (MITA) a Lansing construction lobby, made this point last week when it reported that statewide more than 15 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage have been discharged into waterways this year.

Grand Rapids is a leader in efforts to reduce sewage overflows — boasting a 99 percent decrease in combined overflows since the 1980s. Even with this substantial investment, April’s record rains caused 49 million gallons of partially treated stormwater and sewage to release into the Grand River when the Market Avenue Retention Basin overflowed, part of a series of stormwater events that occurred between April 27 and April 29. A couple of nonconsecutive hours brought 2.5 inches of rain and more than 100 calls to the city’s sewer maintenance department. There were more than 60 flooded streets and catch basins, 24 sewer backups and other issues.

It’s easy to understand why stormwater is a concern when rivers crest or water mains blow, but it doesn’t take a flood for stormwater to negatively impact our community.

For more than 150 years West Michigan corralled and covered many of its creeks and streams. We built roads, parking lots, homes and centers of manufacturing and commerce on floodplains and wetlands. These impervious surfaces and channeled waterways have diminished nature’s ability to store, process and purify water. Now, when precipitation falls it is not absorbed into the ground at a natural rate. Instead, it rushes swiftly into creeks, drains, lakes and rivers, bringing waste and pollution with it — cumulatively, stormwater is the single greatest source of pollution to the Grand River and our Great Lakes.

In Grand Rapids, it takes just 15 to 30 minutes for stormwater to drain into the Grand River. While we’ve reduced sewage overflows significantly, the unnatural rate and volume of stormwater runoff alters a stream’s hydraulics, changing its shape, size and temperature, much to the detriment of local ecology. The runoff brings with it the poisons and pollutants that reside on roads, parking lots, industrial sites, roofs and even the dense, impervious soil of our green lawns and athletic fields. These pollutants include, but are not limited to oils, heavy metals, salts, fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, pathogens and suspended particulates.

Of course, while local watersheds are the most directly affected, environmental problems don’t stop along political boundaries; a large swath of the Lake Michigan watershed, including Lake Michigan itself, is ultimately impacted. We need more than just better sewers. We need to stop stormwater at its source: buildings and homes, sidewalks and streets that make up our urban environment.

Low Impact Development (LID) is a way of building a community that utilizes green infrastructure to mimic pre-development natural processes. Constructed wetlands, trees, rain gardens, green roofs and porous concrete are just a few examples. Cities such as Lansing, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Illinois and Portland, Ore., are finding LID is a cleaner, cheaper way to manage stormwater.

It’s not often that public policy issues come packaged with solutions that add vitality and beauty to an urban area, but stormwater management is one. Investments in green infrastructure and LID will enhance our green spaces, beautify neighborhoods and make business districts more attractive.

Local officials, community leaders and the City of Grand Rapids have taken this problem seriously. There is a clear vision for addressing the issue in the Green Grand Rapids update of the city’s master plan. In addition to years of study, planning and research, the master plan process sought input from thousands of city residents, employers, property owners and other area representatives.

Currently, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council is working in continued collaboration with Grand Rapids, the Kent County drain commissioner and partners across the region to implement elements of the Green Grand Rapids Plan, address stormwater runoff and build a case for sustained funding for stormwater management.

Addressing and preventing flooding is a good reason to start paying attention to stormwater management issues, but the public’s attention shouldn’t recede with the water. With increased public interest and a little innovation, a cleaner environment, more attractive cities and sustainable budgets could remain long after the waters have gone.

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