By: Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
We are witnessing record-breaking destructive “climate” fires in California, Washington, Oregon, and across the Rocky Mountain states that have killed at least 35, destroyed communities and burned more than three million acres of forests in twelve states. Some might think that the climate crisis is only a western threat. It is not.
Ninety-three percent of the excess heat of climate change ends up in our oceans and the Great Lakes, causing enormous evaporative increases, higher humidity, more intense hurricanes, and violent storms causing more significant flood and landslide risks. Others understanding the fast-approaching dangers of increased storms and fires have often become frozen with fear, anxiety, and depression. Neither response is helpful.
We must all do our part to end carbon pollution in its many forms and become active voices in our communities to prepare for increased flood potentials already baked into the climate system but not fully expressed. While we might not be able to do everything, we can do something and by acting, we can lower our stress by channeling energy toward meaningful changes.
Fox Chapel Councilwoman Mandy Steele is an example of someone who is overcoming the fears of climate change with actions to minimize flood risks. Mandy warns: “Climate change is driving a shift in weather. In our region, that means more rain is falling in storms. This increase in the volume of rain is leading to landslides and flooding damage to infrastructure, a costly and dangerous proposition for taxpayers.” Steele is a strong advocate for climate-responsive planning saying “this is why I ran and it’s been a passion for 4 years now.”
Pennsylvania is the most flood-prone state in the country with a long and tragic history of flood disasters. It has experienced several severe and sometimes devastating floods during the past century from hurricanes, tropical storms, and massive rainfall events. Pennsylvania received an average of forty thunderstorm events each year and is naturally vulnerable to floods. With over 45,000 miles of waterways draining 46,000 square miles of land receiving nearly forty or more inches of annual rainfall during average years, Pennsylvania has more flowing water than any other state in the Nation for its size.
Native Americans often used floodplains for growing crops. Early settlers recorded “pumpkin floods” as floodwaters swept over Native American pumpkin fields. After centuries of floodplain development, floods have reaped increasing havoc, death, and destruction in many riverside communities.
With the rapidly approaching climate crisis, Pennsylvania communities are experiencing more intense thunderstorm events triggering flash floods and mudslides. More troubling, in the face of bigger storm events, a significant portion of suburban and urban watersheds have diminished water absorption capacity and inadequate wetland storage. With steep-sloped urbanizing watersheds under concrete, asphalt, and shingles, downstream communities are at dramatically increased risks. Several local watersheds are highly exposed and quite literally flood disasters waiting for the big storm to happen.
It is time for communities to take a fundamentally new course to adapt to extreme weather events. Every community must take steps to minimize flood damage and to protect those downstream. We all must adjust to the weirding of weather now because, for decades, the U.S. and much of the world have failed to eliminate carbon dioxide and methane pollution. Adaptation starts with anticipating projected climate shifts and developing aggressive stormwater and floodplain solutions such as wetlands restoration to reduce the damage of future events. These efforts, coupled with the purchase of Federally subsidized flood insurance by homeowners, can make flood-prone communities and vulnerable home and business owners more resilient. Climate adaptation measures fully implemented can provide increased protection for flood-prone communities and avoid the suffering of many in flood’s way.
Pennsylvania’s Storm Water Management Act (Act 167) was signed into law in1978 to address the damage caused by accelerated stormwater runoff. This law was established in response to the growing impacts of accelerated runoff resulting from extensive land development. It required county governments to prepare and adopt watershed-based stormwater management plans. It also required municipalities to adopt and implement ordinances to regulate growth consistent with these plans. In 1981, a pilot stormwater management study under the auspices of the Stormwater Management Act addressed several high priority flood-prone waterways, including Pine Creek, Deer Creek, Girty’s Run, and Squaw Run. As a follow-up to this study, each municipality was responsible for developing stormwater management ordinances. Under local ordinances, developers are required to design construction projects with erosion and stormwater runoff controls. These measures have had a varying degree of enforcement effectiveness. However helpful stormwater requirements have been, the efforts to control runoff have not kept pace with the growing flood risks from climate change. The law also did not address any of the pre-act developments exempt from runoff limits.
New developments may increase the risk of landslides and downstream floods. Even under the Stormwater Act, developments create impervious surfaces, including pavement and roofs. These alterations accelerate stormwater runoff by removing trees and natural understory vegetation and altering contours, often beyond the limited design features that detain runoff. Vegetation that once absorbed rainfall is removed during construction, exposing the soil to erosion. Following construction, even with some landscaping, the impervious surfaces, compacted soils, and altered contours limit infiltration.
Seeing the risks involved in a proposed development perched on a Fox Chapel ridge above a road that washes out after big rains, Mandy Steele fought the proposal in 2018. Witnessing the need for a change after that experience, Mandy decided to run for Fox Chapel Borough Council on an environmental platform. Residents concerned with increased development that was contributing to the flooding in the area supported her candidacy to address flood risks.
Now, as a member of the Borough Council, Steele contends, “We must think outside of the box when searching for solutions to this new problem. Restoring wetlands in valley bottoms is widely regarded as a highly effective stormwater control measure. Wetlands act like sponges and capture and hold water in big rains, helping to protect stream systems from becoming overloaded. Wetlands are also practical carbon sinks and a boon to wildlife populations.”
“When the borough acquired the Hardie property on Old Mill Road for an expansion to the park system, we had an incredible opportunity to restore the wetlands and build them into the park design. Through the collaboration of the talented architects at Pashek+MTR, a special parks committee, borough staff, with community input, the masterplan is a massive green infrastructure wetland restoration project, with a community park interwoven into the design. A double win for the community with a cutting-edge stormwater project and a 17-acre expansion to our excellent park system. This is innovative long term, climate resilience planning at its best.”
Every community must now plan for a world with intense weather conditions. Land-use planners must anticipate a world with extreme rainfall events and use predictive climate models to look forward rather than relying on 100-year flood records. With the climate crisis at our door, planning by relying on historical flood records does not work anymore. Communities must jointly work in each at-risk watershed to prepare for the growing threat.
With a creative wetlands restoration project, Fox Chapel is setting an example for other communities. Councilmember Mandy Steele sets an example of how to turn climate trepidations and apprehensions about what is coming into meaningful climate mitigation and adaptation actions. Time is short; we must all turn our climate emotions into action to build more resilient communities.