A newly released report on flooding problems caused largely by climate change in the Great Lakes region singled out 20 counties, half of which are located in Michigan.

Near the top of the list of the 653 counties in the Great Lakes region was Wayne County at No. 4. Ingham County was seventh and Isabella County was 9th. Also included in the Top 20 tally are Genesee County, Berrien, Saginaw, Kalamazoo and three small counties on the Lake Superior shoreline – Houghton, Gogebic and Keweenaw.

Those communities ranked highest are viewed as the “best fit” counties for large-scale projects to reduce flooding of streets and homes by placing less reliance on crumbling sewers and drains.

Instead, the move is toward Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI), which relies on greenery such as trees, shrubs and grassy areas to absorb rainwater that currently overwhelms aging concrete drainage systems.

“GSI relies upon a systemic framework of green spaces, parks, and pervious surfaces to filter stormwater runoff and increase water retention in soil and groundwater, rather than corralling and controlling water through a ‘gray’ system of gutters, sewers, and pipes,” according to the report, Climate Risks and Opportunities in the Great Lakes Region,” which was initially released in January.

The data indicates that substantial investments in GSI projects can accomplish significant long-term gains for taxpayers as the costs of handling much smaller sewer and drain flows could be much lower than the overwhelming rates paid by many homeowners in the Great Lakes region – Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Climate change bringing more storms

Beyond a reduction in flooding, the emphasis on green approaches to climate change could reduce summer temperatures in concrete-dominated urban and small-downtown areas. The Great Lakes region has seen temperatures rise more than the U.S. average over the past two decades.

“Rapid shifts are expected in both temperature and precipitation, which will significantly alter local ecosystems, communities, and economies,” wrote the study’s main author, Sanjiv K. Sinha, of the Ann Arbor-based Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. (ECT).

Between 1951 and 2017, University of Michigan-based Great Lakes Integrated Sciences & Assessments Center estimates that the level of precipitation falling in the most extreme Great Lakes area storms has increased by 35 percent.

The scores compiled by the study, creating the “best fit” counties, result from scrutiny of dozens of factors, including poor and minority neighborhoods which could be devastated by major flooding events. In addition, the rankings focus on counties with strong finances and a solid municipal bond rating to pay for these projects.

At Wayne State University in Detroit, a 2016 launch of green infrastructure improvements is expected to free up $102 million on their balance sheet for other capital projects. In Philadelphia, the economies of scale gained from less reliance on the water department’s archaic pipes and sewers is expected to provide savings ranging from 40 percent to 96 percent of the overall cost of green projects across the city.

Anti-pollution benefits also a plus

What’s more, the report finds that green infrastructure can substantially reduce water pollution and algae blooms resulting from sewer overflows, as well as creating ecosystems that are much more friendly to wildlife.

At the local level, green infrastructure practices include rain gardens, permeable pavements (asphalt with absorption), “green roofs” covered with flowers and landscaping, small trees, street-side flower boxes, and rainwater harvesting systems. At the largest scale, the projects could entail preservation and restoration of natural landscapes such as forests, floodplains, and wetlands. All of this work would create green jobs.

Unfortunately, all of this also requires a change in attitudes that would end shortsighted design standards that create property developments dominated by concrete, asphalt and roofs that dump stormwater into drainage systems or directly into the Great Lakes.

The study found that between 1996-2010, Great Lakes coastal counties added more than 1,259 square miles of real estate development, an area larger than the cities of Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Columbus, and Milwaukee combined.


Photo: Jim Gade, courtesty of Unsplash