Urban Flooding Is the Nation’s “Hidden Challenge”; Accessible Data Are the Flashlight.

We have an infrastructure problem affecting a large number of communities across the nation. It’s costing billions of dollars, causing public health concerns, and worsening environmental issues. Yet it’s not getting nearly the amount of attention it deserves. Why? Because we simply do not have the information we need to fully evaluate and address the problem. Today, we’ll take a look at urban flooding, the nation’s “hidden challenge” that’s becoming  more obvious with every storm.

“[Urban flooding] gnaws away in so many places, and it doesn’t [always] rise to the level of a big Mississippi River flood or a [Hurricane] Harvey in downtown Houston…Yet there isn’t nearly enough information to help government officials understand the extent of these floods.” –  Dr. Gerry Galloway, University of Maryland

When we think about flooding, we tend to conjure up images that make the national news, such as Hurricane Harvey or Superstorm Sandy.  However, the first nationwide report on urban flooding, completed last year,  notes that if we only focus on those “mega” events, we are missing the bulk of the problem.  More frequent, smaller scale flooding are happening in communities all over the country during “normalrain events, to the extent that the authors of that report have called urban flooding the nations “hidden challenge”.

Flooding in Hackensack, NJ, on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, after an “intense but short” thunder shower. (source)

Urban flooding, like any other type of flooding, occurs when water accumulates on the ground more quickly than it can be absorbed or directed away. The reason flooding is more frequent in urbanized regions is because they have more paved, or impervious, surfaces, meaning that water cannot easily absorb into the ground.  For this reason, urban regions rely heavily on stormwater systems to quickly convey water away.

The problems associated with urban flooding are wide ranging, including, but not limited to:

Urban residents and municipal managers often view urban flooding and associated as just a “fact of life” because they happen so frequently, but this pattern is not sustainable. Communities across the nation are dealing with increasingly outdated and undersized stormwater systems that cannot handle the ever-growing amounts of water being sent their way to do to increasing urbanization, rainfall, and sea levels.  While we know qualitatively that these systems are in need of updating, we do not have substantial quantitative data detailing either the state of the nation’s stormwater systems OR the extent of the nation’s urban flooding problem, leading researchers to conclude that a primary source of the growing urban flooding problem (besides more frequent rainstorms and more pavement) is OLD, OUTDATED DATA.

This lack of data is racking up cumulative effects throughout our communities.  Without data on our existing infrastructure, we cannot make informed decisions regarding upgrades and future design standards. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues report cards for America’s infrastructure. Historically, stormwater has been grouped with wastewater, making issues specifically linked to urban flooding hard to parse out in a meaningful way. This hidden information makes it nearly impossible for the issue to get the attention (and funding!) that it deserves.  Luckily, it has just been announced that the next report card, to be released in 2021, will include a separate section for stormwater infrastructure (!).

“The inclusion of stormwater infrastructure in the ASCE’s report card will provide a much-deserved boost in visibility for infrastructure that is vital to communities across the country” – Eileen O’Neil, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation

While this is good news, we must acknowledge that understanding our physical infrastructure will not fully solve this problem.  We are expecting our infrastructure to function in an environment that is changing, and our plans are often not accounting for that change. A study of the DOT design standards in the 48 contiguous found that many standards were based on outdated precipitation data, and that NONE of the standards took future precipitation projections into account. If we invest in infrastructure upgrades but fail to make these considerations, we will not only be wasting our money, but setting ourselves up for failure. An excerpt from the national report on urban flooding highlights this point:

 “More accessibility and availability of data is critical to effective response, recovery, and long-term mitigation of flood events. This data must be provided in an easily interpreted and spatially identifiable format.”

At StormSensor, we believe that communities deserve an affordable, easy to use system to get the information they need to tackle urban flooding and make informed and economically sound decisions about their future. If urban flooding is the nation’s “hidden challenge”, we believe accessible data are the flashlight! So we have developed a system of IoT sensors, cloud-based software, and analytics to illuminate the issue.

Our Scute™ sensors track water depth, velocity, and temperature within your stormwater system 24/7. Data is usable in real-time via our Terrapin™ cloud-based software. Our analytics, which include real-time alerts and notifications, add another level of insight that help you proactively manage your current system, while gathering the data you need to plan future improvements.  Imagine being able to tell exactly when and where your system is functioning properly, and where it’s overwhelmed, in real-time!

Conceptual Image: StormSensor dashboard utilizing critical depth alerts to track and respond to potential flooding.

Our system also pulls local weather data to further contextualize the data captured in your pipes.  You can instantly diagnose problems due to rain events vs. those caused by inner system backups or clogs, determine what intensity of rain event is a “tipping point”, and identify choke points within your system.

Is urban flooding a problem in your area? Not sure you have the information or budget to tackle the problem? Join the club 😉  Then, schedule a demo with us and learn how easy getting started can be!

About the author

Suzie Housley

Stormwater Scientist

Talk stormwater with suzie@stormsensor.io Suzie has over a decade of experience in the Stormwater industry including both government and academic work. She leans on her experience to meaningfully interpret scientific studies and government policies to communicate a practical message. Suzie lives just outside Nashville, TN and gets outside whenever she can to explore nature with her husband and two small children.