Stormwater: Up-Close and Personal
I’ve had the pleasure and fortune to spend my summer working at the Johnson Foundation, where for the last two months I’ve accumulated a great cache of hands-on learning experiences to take with me when I go. But last week I was able to take experiential learning to a new level when the subject of a Wingspread Briefing, stormwater, came literally flooding into my life and home.
On Wednesday the foundation hosted a briefing on Stormwater and Climate Change, presented by David Liebl, Stormwater Specialist with the UW-Cooperative Extension. David talked about the impacts climate change is expected to have on coastal communities, including the many Wisconsin cities and towns on the Great Lakes, as well as those on rivers and smaller lakes throughout the state. Although it’s impossible to predict exactly how a warming planet will affect local areas, one thing that seems certain is rain events will become less predictable and more extreme. In the coming years and decades we can expect to see more droughts and more severe rain events and floods than ever before.
In elegant response to David’s warnings, the next day brought nearly 8 inches of rain to Milwaukee, making it the second-rainiest day in the city’s history, and turning this month into the wettest July on Wisconsin record. At about 6 pm I went into my basement to fetch a hammer and was surprised to see my floor floating. The foam tiles in my home gym were hovering on about 3 inches of water, which was quickly rising out of the drain in the center of the floor. My partner and I, along with our ill-timed houseguest, spent the next fifteen minutes wading through sewage and rainwater to move our belongings to higher ground. The water rose to about 7 inches before receding into the floor drain, which I assume was the result of the sewerage district opening the deep tunnel to let water and sewage flow into the rivers and lake.
I found out later we were among the lucky ones. My neighbors across the alley had 3 feet of water in their basement; a few blocks away another neighbor reported a chest-high flood. Today the curbs in my neighborhood are piled high with ruined furniture, wet strips of carpet, and bags of belongings that didn’t make it out in time. In the suburb to the north of my house, a group of foolhardy fearless young men filmed themselves walking down the street in chest-high water while dumpsters floated by. I can only imagine the damage to stores and other buildings in that area.
And I found out today that more than just possessions were lost in the storm. Just miles from my home, a young man lost his life while driving his car near a swollen creek. I feel deeply grateful that my family and I were safe at home during the storm.
Now that my basement floor has received a healthy dose of bleach and elbow grease, I’m considering how to put things back together. Maybe I shouldn’t leave boxes of photo albums sitting on the floor. Perhaps some shelves are in order.
Just as my family and I think about the changes we need to make to prepare ourselves for the next big rain, our communities need to do the same. As David pointed out, the question now isn’t whether climate change is real, but how we are going to deal with it. Impending storms, as well as droughts, will change the way we live. We will need to change our lives and our landscapes to adapt. Sewers, roadways, homes, farms – all of our infrastructure – will need to be built or upgraded with a different, more extreme climate in mind.
Perhaps there’s a silver lining on Thursday’s storm clouds: These ever more frequent storms just might open our eyes to the folly of using yesterday’s infrastructure to deal with today’s weather. I certainly plan to adapt my own home. I hope my community and my country will do the same.