Rain, Surface Water Runoff and Drainage – The Big Picture

There is no ignoring the issue of surface water runoff  in the northeast US, especially during the spring season, which comprises snow melts followed by lots of rain. Speaking of which, we have had it pretty badly during the past six months here in upstate New York – shivering through what seemed to be the coldest, snowiest and longest winter in a long time, followed by one of the wettest spring seasons I can remember.

For homeowners in northeast U.S., the spring season means soggy, muddy backyards dotted with puddles of stagnant water, and sometimes much worse – flooded basements, a new stream through the front yard, or the washing away of thousands of dollars of landscaping. As one might imagine, this also means lots and lots of calls from concerned citizens to local municipalities.

But even after all the headaches we have and will continue to have with these drainage issues in the northeast US, when I compare them to the water issues further west, I can’t really complain. While the problems in the northeast deal with too much water and where to put it, further west, the problem is not enough water, and how to conserve it.

For example, large municipalities out west are spending millions on plastic balls which are dumped over water bodies to slow evaporation and conserve water. In Phoenix, the lack of water is so pervasive that it has fundamentally changed the ground upon which the City sits so that the City itself is actually sinking, by some calculations at a rate of .75 inches per year. That’s terrifying.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that properly addressing surface water runoff, or “drainage,” is an important topic, at least in the northeast U.S. A key element of solving the drainage problem begins at the time of application for new development. Whether a local Village Board is handling a major rezoning request, a Town Planning Board is considering a 30 home residential subdivision or a Zoning Board is addressing a variance for a larger driveway, problems resulting from drainage can be greatly minimized when our local municipal boards properly plan for and implement measures to deal with surface water.

During application review, local municipal boards should work with their engineer to ensure it fully considers the drainage implications of a proposed project. Even something as minor as the widening of a driveway (which often means replacing grass lawn that absorbs water with impervious pavement that generates surface water runoff) can generate enough surface water runoff to damage a neighbor’s lawn, drown their newly planted bushes or possibly flood a basement. Mitigation measures ranging from implementing drainage swales (i.e., “ditches”), properly grading a driveway, hooking into municipal storm water systems or even properly directing the outflow of gutter discharge can have substantial effects on potential drainage issues.

Other strategies outside of application review may also prove useful, including establishing and ensuring compliance with maximum developable area standards to limit impervious areas, creating and maintaining a drainage district, and ensuring Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans (“SWPPPs”) are carefully monitored and complied with.

Let us be grateful that we have so much water that we must be careful about where we direct and drain it. Let us be thoughtful about where we put it and how it gets there. But, also, let us not forget that we could face a much more dire problem – not having enough water. After all, we could face the same tough choice as Tom Selleck – hijack municipal water for our garden or watch our gardens slowly wither away.