The deadly and unprecedented flooding that struck South Carolina highlighted many areas across our state where stormwater management systems weren’t up to snuff. The floods also provided us with a silver lining: an opportunity to rebuild our damaged roads, bridges, parking lots and buildings with an eye to the future, using the superior designs of low-impact development.
Low-impact development is a rainfall-management principle that treats stormwater as a resource instead of a waste product, and works with nature to manage stormwater as close to its source as possible. There are many different approaches, including rainwater harvesting systems, permeable pavement, swales, wetlands, green roofs and stream restoration. Generally speaking, low-impact development is all about getting rain down into the ground where it can be stored and filtered by soil and plants, instead of quickly running off into our creeks and rivers, carrying pollution and contributing to flooding.
Across the country and the world, civil engineers and watershed managers are finding that storm drains, culverts, channelized creek beds and other “grey infrastructure” built during the 20th century are not the best way to deal with heavy rainfall. In many instances, grey infrastructure was built as a knee-jerk reaction to localized flooding, and these systems often concentrate floodwaters, simply sending the problem further downstream. Today, millions of dollars are being spent to transform grey infrastructure into green infrastructure using the principles of low-impact development.
While these expenditures may seem large, low-impact systems are often far more affordable and valuable than traditional grey infrastructure systems. A 2007 EPA report found that installing such systems could reduce costs by up to 80 percent over traditional approaches such as curbs, storm drains and piping. Systems such as green roofs can cut cooling costs by more than 75 percent in the summertime. Often, the savings are greatest for commercial and multi-family developments with large impermeable roofs and parking lots. And of course there is the extreme savings from reducing floods.
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The best thing about low-impact development is that it improves quality of life even when it isn’t raining. It can make our gorgeous state even prettier, through rain gardens, restored streams or beautifully constructed wetlands that filter stormwater and slow its flow, providing habitat for birds, plants and animals. Low-impact development means free irrigation water from your rain barrel and often goes hand-in-hand with better recreational access to local water bodies, such as urban greenways along streams, or bike lanes built into new bridges.
The latest on the floods and recovery
Although it may not seem like it at the moment, the ample rainfall that we receive in South Carolina is one of our state’s biggest blessings, a resource that we can harness to a greater degree while reducing the risk of destructive floods.
The massive flooding was incredibly harmful to South Carolina’s people, economy and environment, but it has presented us with a real opportunity. By systematically rebuilding key infrastructure in our floodplains and low-lying areas, we can use this disaster to make our state better, stronger and more prepared.
The key will be to rebuild not to the standards of the past, but to the aspirations of the future.
Niles Brinton is a Leesville crop adviser with environmental management degrees from Clemson and the University of California, Santa Barbara; contact him at email@example.com.