Friday, July 12, 2013

Ellicott City Flooded From the Top

I am certain that when the Stormwater Management Utility Fee was introduced, the first thing going through many legislator's minds was "How am I going to explain this to my constituents?"  Having lost the semantic war early ("Rain Tax") and mass confusion being promoted by opponents ("I wonder how much this storm is going to cost me?"), they gave up.

What they really could have said was: "Ellicott City flooded from the top."

As we all know, Ellicott City is perched almost directly on the banks of the Patapsco River.  It is expected to flood, as reflected in the notches in the CSX bridge.  But the expectation is that the flood will creep up the banks of the Patapsco and overflow into the town from the bottom.

On September 7, 2011, this happened:

1) Tropical Storm Lee flooded Ellicott City from the top.
2) What you see in that video is "stormwater".
3) It is preventable.

So how does this happen?  The simplest way to explain it is "Nothing is slowing down the water."  As I heard someone recently describe it, so long as rain stays outside of our basements, we don't pay much attention to how much falls, at what rate, or, most importantly, where it goes.  Meanwhile, our roads, sidewalks, patios, and parking lots are designed to move that water, as fast as possible, off those surfaces into streams, rivers, and ponds.

What happens then?  First, here's a picture of a healthy stream bed:

Now here's an unhealthy stream bed:

The faster storm water is jettisoned into these streams, the faster the stream runs, the higher it runs, and the more it tears up the steam bed.  Oh, and the faster it causes this:

Ellicott City flooded from the top because the natural infrastructure of streams and ponds that make up the Tiber-Hudson Watershed were no longer able to handle the storm run-off from upstream development and dumped the overflow onto Main Street Ellicott City.  Many believe this is the first time Ellicott City has ever flooded from the top of the hill.

So what does the Stormwater Management Utility Fee have to do with this?  The County has to fix it.  It must restore stream beds and ponds to absorb storm water, keep it off our roads, and out of our houses.  It is expensive to replace parking lots with pervious surfaces (getting the water into the ground instead of our streams) and create run-off ponds next to commercial properties, but it is essential.  There is a reason that the transfer of this expense onto residents is titled a "utility".  Just as we pay for sewage, garbage, and recycling, the County is charging for the responsible disposal of devastatingly powerful discharge from each and every one of our properties.  Citizens are encouraged to install rain barrels (free from the County) and rain gardens to receive credits against that tax.  If you take care of your own storm water, you don't need to pay the County to do it.

While the rest of the State may frame this issue as a matter of preventing pollution to the Chesapeake, we do not have that luxury.  We have a here-and-now threat to our County seat that can be solved by aggressive Stormwater Management. 

The next time someone wants to talk to you about the "Rain Tax", remind them that Ellicott City flooded from the top.

Have a great Friday doing what you love.