Many look to the immediate concerns a significant weather event might bring — the potential for dangerous driving conditions with heavy sheets of rain or the threat of hail leading to a cracked windshield. Water resource specialists see the challenges posed by stormwater that can result in infrastructure damage and polluted streams. These specialists dive into the reasoning behind why this issue is occurring to identify a solution that protects communities and mitigates long-term effects from major weather events.

Infrastructure built decades ago often is not capable of handling the sudden influx of stormwater from intense weather events. This can result in major flooding and stream erosion damaging downstream bridges and culverts and exposing other public infrastructure along the streams, such as sanitary sewers. Water resource specialists now have the opportunity to adjust their approach to stormwater system evaluations to resolve this ongoing issue.

A Comprehensive Approach

Handling stormwater challenges by examining the entire stormwater system, rather than just one particular area, can prevent siloed solutions from being implemented. The standard response to stormwater challenges is often to pass the water downstream. The tendency in the stormwater industry can often be to only examine a specific area upstream and install a larger pipe or other larger infrastructure to handle the more extreme event. However, this solution does not account for the uncontrolled discharge of storm events that are less than the more extreme event that can occur suddenly, sending a flow of water downstream to the next neighborhood.

These lesser but more frequent storm events cause a cumulative impact downstream, sometimes leading to sudden damage to infrastructure in and near streams. These issues are often classified as emergency damage, leading to costly solutions that may have been avoided with more upfront planning. By using hydraulic modeling, water resource specialists can simulate flooding based on historical events and recent rainfall data. This approach examines the entire watershed looking at a range of storm events, so that water resource specialists can develop a set of solutions that will have the greatest impact across the watershed and lead to more resilient and reliable stormwater management services.

Adding Value With Advanced Planning

Additionally, many of these stormwater system challenges aren’t discovered until the infrastructure updates needed are severe. Solutions to help capture, control and convey stormwater should be identified early on during the planning or design level for infrastructure that is new or being upgraded.

By implementing resilient, more strategic solutions from the beginning, the value of stormwater infrastructure can be increased to provide additional public benefits other than just conveying stormwater downstream. Increasing the function of existing stormwater infrastructure can create more cost-effective and sustainable solutions that help reduce long-term costs. The current practice of dealing with stormwater by removing it as quickly as possible is not a sustainable long-term solution. We need to switch our thinking from treating stormwater as waste to regarding it as a natural resource, so that stormwater solutions can provide multiple public benefits rather than just the removal of water.


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Andy Sauer is the green infrastructure and stormwater manager and a senior project manager for water systems at Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in stormwater management, green infrastructure, comprehensive watershed studies, computer modeling and geographic information systems.