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Flooding Prevention Ordinance Considered

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I love a good Midwestern thunderstorm. The anticipation. The deluge. The electricity in the air.

Yet I felt strangely uneasy about the torrential rain that hit Dane County on August 20, 2018. It just kept coming. And coming. I checked anxiously on my sleeping infant daughter, wondering how the lakes near our home could possibly contain all that water. I’d only later learn that almost seven inches of water fell in Madison in 14 hours, setting precipitation records and spawning fl ash floods that caused power outages, closed roads, and swept one stranded motorist away (up to 15 inches fell in some areas to the west). I’d only later learn that water overwhelmed the storm system and had nowhere to go but streets and bike paths surrounding our home. Over the next few days, several roads near the Yahara River became impassable except by canoe.

The 2018 storm prompted two kinds of flooding: flash and lake-level. Flash flooding, which was most severe to the west, happens when rainfall overwhelms the storm sewers and water continues fl owing wherever it can (often basements and other places we’d rather it not). The storm also prompted lake-level flooding, which occurs when rainfall is faster than the natural movement of water through the chain of lakes and rivers surrounding Madison. Tenney-Lapham was one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by lake-level flooding in August 2018.

Unfortunately, climate change means that both kinds of flooding are becoming more common. Our region experienced 100-year rain events - storms with a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in a given year - in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Although few of us were affected thanks to proactive measures from city engineers, Tenney-Lapham was at risk of lake-level flooding again in 2019. So what can we do to increase flood resilience in our community? City of Madison Engineering staff have spent the last eighteen months talking with neighborhoods and exploring strategies to make our city better able to weather these extreme rain events. One such strategy is updating Madison’s stormwater design standards. The proposed changes to Madison General Ordinance Chapter 37 would require new developments to retain more water on site. The changes would also apply similar requirements to redeveloped sites for the first time. Take, for example, the Galaxie on East Washington. The building replaced an existing car lot and was essentially grandfathered into outdated water retention standards. Rather than being required to add rain barrels and green roofs to keep more runoff on site, the developers of Festival Foods and luxury high-rise apartments were allowed to build to the same stormwater retention standards as the car lot preceding it. The revised ordinance would change that. Understandably, some stakeholders have expressed concern that the changes will further increase costs in an already-expensive market. According to City Engineering, for example, meeting these requirements in the new Public Market has added about $90,000 in construction costs. To put that in perspective, the August 2018 flooding caused an estimated $4 million in damage to public infrastructure and another $30 million to private (largely residential) property. Putting aside the question of who should pay for the negative externalities of climate change, implementing basic flooding resilience measures is simply smart planning.

Although the 2018 flood upended commutes, submerged basements, and disrupted my neighbors’ plans to sell their house, one bright spot was that it turned out to be a great teaching tool. I used it as a case study in my environmental sociology courses to explore whether natural disasters are so “natural” after all. The August 20th storm was Undoubtedly a meteorological train without a conductor - an “act of God” in the parlance of our homeowner’s insurance policy. Yet the flood was also caused in part by human decisions. Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are scrambling ecological systems, leading to more frequent and severe rain events.

Our failure to implement adequate stormwater management guidelines also played a role. I’m glad to report that we have many opportunities to choose a more sustainable future.

  • Learn more about the proposed changes and public meetings on March 5th and 24th at https://cityofmadison.com/engineering/ StormwaterOrdinanceUpdates.cfm.
  • Email a written public comment to engineer@cityofmadison.com by April 10th.
  • Contact your Alder about stormwater management and other policies to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis.
  • Sign up to comment on the proposed ordinance changes at meetings of city committees and Common Council in May (Alders will tentatively vote on May 19th).
  • Join 350 Madison (http://350madison.org) to advocate for this and other climate resilience measures in our community.
Laura is a TLNA member, volunteer with 350 Madison's Community Climate Solutions Team, and doctoral candidate in environmental sociology at UW-Madison.

Posted by Laura Hanson Schlachter
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