Green development could mean green backs for your community

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, Ph.D., manager of watershed partnerships

Could your land use plan be holding back your community?

It could if you’re not focusing on balancing water protection with land development.

This region is averaging about 4 more inches of precipitation per year than it did 30 years ago. Stronger storms, heavier rainfalls and destructive erosion are becoming more common. Just a few weeks ago, the region experienced a new record for rainfall for June 14, from 1.29 inches that day to 2.68 inches, according to a Dayton Daily News story.

This region now averages about 4 more inches of precipitation per year than it did 30 years ago.

Businesses looking to grow or relocate want to be sure flooding isn’t an issue. Communities now more than ever need to focus on protecting their water, and mitigating flooding and peak flows.

Studies show green development practices can save money 

According to a 2010 study by the American Society of Landscape Architects, governments are wasting billions of dollars a year by not going green. The report looked at 479 case studies of green development projects around the U.S. and found that in more than 73 percent of the cases, the environmentally friendly solution cost the same or less than traditional development.
According to the study, green development practices:

  • Not only cost less, but these practices can further reduce costs of treating large amounts of polluted runoff.
  • Can help municipalities reduce energy expenses.
  • May reduce flooding and related flood damage.
  • Improve public health — reducing bacteria and pollution in rivers and streams, preventing gastrointestinal illnesses in swimmers and boaters.

Seattle Public Utilities found that using grassed channels; combined with narrowing the roadway, eliminating traditional curb and gutter, and placing sidewalks on only one side of the street garnered a cost savings for the city of 15–25 percent, or $100,000 – $235,000 per block, as compared to conventional stormwater control design (Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2010).

One study found that using green development practices saved 15 to 20 percent in stormwater control costs.

 

Land Use Planning to protect water and maximize economic opportunity

MCD can help communities that want to integrate water protection into their land use plans, zoning code, and subdivision regulations. Amending local codes and ordinances is an important first step to achieving a balance between protecting water and promoting economic development.

Communities often find that their existing development policies conflict with the goal of water protection. For instance, current design calls for

  • Wide streets
  • Expansive parking lots
  • Large-lot subdivisions

Massive parking lots are impenetrable, creating a barrier to groundwater recharge.

All of these create excessive impervious cover, increase flood risk in low lying areas, and provide little room for green space and a natural environment. Incentives for developers to conserve natural areas and consider water protection are generally few and far between.

So what’s the answer?

Better Site Design is an approach to both residential and commercial development that is intended to:

  • Reduce flood risk.
  • Help comply with stormwater regulations.
  • Increase groundwater recharge.
  • Improve stormwater filtration.
  • Reduce erosive flows to streams and rivers.

All of the above can save your community money and create a more marketable product.

Pervious pavers like this driveway in Brookville reduce stormwater runoff and last years longer than concrete. 

How MCD can help

Using a Site Planning Roundtable, MCD staff can guide a community through a consensus process, bringing together local leaders from government, development, and natural resources.

Together, we’ll create development policies that balance water protection and economic development for your community.

The local roundtable will:

  • Identify existing development rules.
  • Compare them to the principles of Better Site Design.
  • Determine if changes can or should be made to current codes and ordinances.
  • Negotiate and reach consensus on what the changes should be.

Let’s get started!

MCD, in partnership with local sponsors, can assist communities during all phases of the Site Planning Roundtable. Call me at 937-223-1278 ext. 3244 and let’s get started!

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MCD has its eye on water

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

Did you know MCD tracks precipitation, groundwater levels, and flow in rivers and streams?

This information helps MCD and its partner agencies with flood forecasting, groundwater quantity monitoring, and understanding water movement into and out of the Great Miami River Watershed.

Here’s what we tracked in 2016 and what we’ve seen in 2017.

Water in 2016

  • Precipitation for the year was right around 37 inches or about 2.5 trillion gallons of water.
    • Average annual precipitation for the Miami Valley is about 43 inches.
  • Precipitation was below average eight of 12 months in 2016.
    • August was a notable exception with nearly 6 inches of rain. The average for that month is a little more than 3 inches.
  • Runoff from the Great Miami River Watershed into the Ohio River was about 12 inches or 823 billion gallons of water. Runoff includes water from rainfall and groundwater water that seeps into the river.
    • Average annual runoff is about 15 inches.
  • Water levels in the buried valley aquifer began the year near average at most observation wells. They declined to below-average levels during the summer and then returned to average levels in the fall.
  • Water recharge to Miami Valley aquifers averaged a little more than 6 inches or about 411 billion gallons.
    • Average annual recharge for the watershed is around 8 inches. Despite the lower average for 2016, the region has an abundance of groundwater.

What are we seeing in 2017?

We’re not even halfway through the year, and precipitation and runoff are trending above average. At the end of May, MCD had recorded nine high water events this year, which is above average for the entire year. MCD recorded only five high water events during all of 2016.

MCD defines a high water event as a time when:

  • Any single dam goes into storage, meaning the elevation of the water upstream of the dam exceeds the top of the dam’s conduit.
  • Or the river at any of our cities reaches an “action stage” as defined by the MCD Emergency Action Plan, such as closing a floodgate.

All of the dams except Huffman Dam have stored floodwaters at least once this year:

  • Germantown Dam – 7 storage events
  • Englewood Dam – 9 storage events
  • Lockington Dam – 1 storage event
  • Taylorsville Dam – 1 storage event

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ohio River Forecast Center, there’s an equal chance of above- or below-average precipitation for the next three months. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Top 5 Regional Water Challenges for the 21st Century

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

You may have heard me say this before—southwest Ohio is water rich. We have abundant, high-quality, water when compared with other parts of our country and the world.

Yet, our region is not without challenges in managing water. Here are five water trends that may pose challenges to our community leaders for the foreseeable future.

Precipitation and runoff are trending up

Our region is getting wetter. Mean annual precipitation and runoff (the amount of water that drains off land) in the region are trending up. In the 1960s, mean annual precipitation was around 37 inches per year. Today, mean annual precipitation is a little over 41 inches. That‘s an increase of about 4 inches per year. Not surprisingly, mean annual runoff shows a similar trend.Precipitation trending up chart

These trends are good news and bad news at the same time. The good news from a water quantity perspective is our region isn’t likely to experience any long-term water shortages given current water uses. The bad news is our region could experience more frequent flooding outside of areas protected by The Miami Conservancy District (MCD). One thing that’s clear is communities will likely deal with more frequent and intense rain events in the future.

Water use is trending down

According to data compiled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, water use for things such as drinking water, manufacturing, and irrigation are declining. Total ground and surface water used in the area that drains to the Great Miami River peaked in the early 2000s at slightly fewer than 600 million gallons of water per day. Water use is currently at about 300 million gallons per day

Water trend usage chartThe decline in water use is a result of several factors, including more water-efficient plumbing fixtures, increased efficiencies in industrial water use, a regional decline in manufacturing, and the closure of the DP&L Hutchings Station power plant.

Declining water use poses a challenge for many local water utilities struggling to maintain sufficient revenues to deal with rising infrastructure costs. In the past, water systems often made their financial projections based upon an assumption of rising water demand. This assumption is no longer valid. And yet, public water system infrastructure must be maintained if we want to have safe drinking water. Some water utilities may need to restructure rates to ensure sufficient revenues.

Nutrient levels in rivers and streams remain too high

Algal bloom on Great Miami River

2012 algal bloom on the Great Miami River in downtown Dayton

Nitrogen and phosphorus levels in many area rivers and streams are too high and affect aquatic life. The most common sources of nitrogen and phosphorus are agricultural fertilizers and human sewage. When nitrogen and phosphorus are present in water at high levels, they fuel excessive algal growth in the rivers where we like to recreate. Recent algal blooms in other parts of the US have been toxic. Agricultural leaders and communities that manage water-reclamation facilities are working to find a solution that cost-effectively reduces nutrients in our rivers and streams.

Road salt and fertilizers impact aquifers

top-water-challenges-blog-road-salt

Deicing agents such as road salt and brine can increase chloride in streams and rivers.

Applications of road salt and nitrogen fertilizers are perhaps the two most prolific sources of man-made contaminants to aquifers. Elevated levels of chloride from road salt—and elevated levels of nitrate from fertilizers or failing septic systems—are present in regional aquifers. That’s what  groundwater data collected by the United States Geological Survey, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA), and MCD show.

The take-home message is better methods for applying road deicing agents and agricultural fertilizers are needed in areas where regional aquifers are vulnerable to contaminants.

Do we know where these vulnerable aquifer areas are? We have a good start. Every public water system in Ohio that relies on groundwater has a defined source water protection area. A source water protection area is a map of all the aquifer areas which provide drinking water to a particular public water system. Those maps can be shared with farmers and road maintenance departments. It may be possible to reduce use or find better methods to apply fertilizers and road salt in these sensitive areas.

Widespread destruction of natural stream habitats continue

top-water-challenges-blog-concrete-channel

Modified stream channels have poor habitat and water quality.

It used to be that most people’s image of a polluted stream involved a factory with a big discharge pipe pouring toxic chemicals into the stream. That’s no longer a top water quality threat to regional rivers and streams. According to Ohio EPA, human alterations to the stream channel are perhaps the most widespread cause of stream destruction. Human alterations can mean:

  • Channelizing or straightening a stream channel.
  • Removing the natural vegetation from a streambank.
  • Increasing the impervious surface area that drains into a stream.
  • Damming the stream channel.
  • Developing in a stream’s floodplain.

All of the activities listed above disrupt a stream’s natural habitat, which can affect water quality in the places many of us like to recreate. They also create other problems, such as soil erosion and flooding, which can lead to costly clean-up and restoration.

Solutions to the problem typically seek to preserve as much of the stream channel in its natural state as possible. Streamside setbacks, conservation easements, and low- impact development practices are tools that can minimize destruction of rivers and streams.

Moving Forward

All of these water challenges can be overcome. The know-how already exists. The key is you and me. Most of these water challenges are the direct or indirect result of how we live our lives—the neighborhoods we build, the services we demand, and the value we place on having clean water.

The solutions will require different ways of thinking and different approaches to the way in which our region develops land. Agricultural practices for fertilizers and stream conservation will have to improve. New investments in water reclamation technologies may be needed, and perhaps changes to water rates. Are we ready to embrace those changes?

What can you do to prepare? Here’s a short list of ideas:

  • Advocate for federal investment in water infrastructure upgrades.
  • Include water management in short- and long-range community planning.
  • Keep water protection at the top of your community’s priorities.
  • Write local policies that protect water.

 

What’s ahead for our region’s weather?

By Mike Ekberg, Manager for Water Resources Monitoring and Analysis

In my August 1, blogpost, “Climate Change: Is It Real?” we noted that our climate is always changing. Some people want to debate the cause, but that’s not nearly as important as planning for the changes that are expected.

A warming trend will amplify the extremes in our region’s climate, according to the Third National Climate Assessment. We can expect more intense summer heat waves, more droughts, and more floods.

More rain when we don’t need it and less rain when we do
The Third National Climate Assessment says here’s what we can expect over the next 35 years:

  • Annual average temperature in our region is expected to increase as much as 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Winter and spring precipitation is expected to increase 10-20 percent.
    • We’ll see less snow and more rain.
    • Storms are likely to be stronger, increasing the chance of flooding.
  • Summer rainfall is expected to drop 8 percent, increasing the chance of droughts.
    • Summer droughts can increase water demands on utilities for lawn irrigation.
    • More frequent summer droughts can increase water demand for crop irrigation.

The Miami Valley will need to cope with intense winter and spring rain events when human water demand is low. Likewise, we’ll need to cope with hotter – and sometimes drier – summers when human water demand is high.

Making changes now key to coping in the future
How can our region successfully cope with these challenges?

Planning and wise infrastructure investment is the key. Here are some steps communities in our region can take to prepare for a warmer future.

  • Minimize paved surfaces to reduce flash flooding and streambank erosion.
  • Encourage infiltration areas such as pervious pavement, rain gardens, and drainage swales to reduce urban runoff.
  • Install flood warning systems in areas prone to flash flooding.

    rain garden

    Rain gardens reduce storm water runoff by using the rain water on your property, allowing it to soak into the ground and recharge the aquifer.

  • Invest in more water storage to meet summer demands.
  • Manage summer water demand through regulations, rate structures, or consumer incentives.
  • Use the most efficient irrigation technologies to reduce summer water demand.
  • Provide cooling shelters for people who do not have access to air conditioning during summer heat waves.

The time to act is now
Taking steps now is the key to preparing for a changing world. Our region is fortunate to have sufficient water resources and should be able to weather the forecasted changes if we manage those resources well. If we don’t prepare now, we’ll be playing catch up later, and that could prove to be costly.

 

2015 in Review: A Wet Year

The year 2015 has come to a close and before we get too far into 2016, I thought it might be interesting to review the year from a hydrologic perspective given all the recent attention to El Niño and the December 27-30 high water event on the Great Miami River and its tributaries.

The Great Miami River Watershed received an average of 45.26 inches of precipitation in 2015. The 30- year average annual precipitation is 41.18 inches, so 2015 was well above average.

Precipitation was significantly above average during the months of April, June, July, and December. February, May, and September were significantly drier than normal. No record highs or lows were set in 2015.

Above-average precipitation in 2015 led to above average runoff. Runoff is the amount of water carried out of a drainage area by streams. Runoff for the Great Miami River was measured at 18.37 inches for the year, which is 5.34 inches above average.

At least one Miami Conservancy District dam stored water on 12 different occasions in 2015. The average number of annual storage events for the MCD flood protection system is eight. The largest storage event was the December 27–30 event when all five of MCD’s dams were storing floodwaters. Together the dams stored 14.2 billion gallons of water behind the dams. This event ranked as the 32nd largest storage event in MCD history.

All in all, 2015 was a continuation of a rising trend in precipitation for our region. The chart below shows how the 30-year average annual precipitation for the Great Miami River has changed since 1985, and has been rising sharply since the 1990s. What can we expect if this trend continues? The answer is more rain, more runoff, and more high-water events.

30-year precip chart

Winter 2016 and “The Mother of all El Niños”

El Niño is getting a lot of media attention these days being blamed for floods, famine, and the spread of diseases. This year’s El Niño is shaping up to be one of the stronger, if not the strongest, El Niño in history. In fact, it’s drawing comparisons to the 1997 El Niño event, which is the strongest El Niño on record and sometimes called “The Mother of all El Niños.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the current El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean is expected to peak in December, but the impacts of El Niño are expected to last well into the spring of 2016. These impacts are likely to influence weather in our region.

El Nino comparison

Comparison of 1997 El Niño (left) and 2015 El Niño

When it comes to Earth’s climate, weather phenomena happening in faraway places can sometimes have dramatic impacts locally. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific Ocean. The image above shows areas of the Pacific Ocean with above-normal water temperatures colored in red in August of the 1997 El Niño event and August of 2015.

When El Niño occurs, very warm waters in the Pacific Ocean pump more moisture into the atmosphere. This impacts and changes the direction of major wind currents, steering weather systems across the United States. In other words, the typical storm paths in the United States are shifted. Typically, El Niño shifts storm tracks south during the winter months resulting in increased precipitation across the southern tier of the United States. At the same time, El Niño tends to bring warmer-than-normal temperatures to Alaska, Canada, and the northern tier of the United States. 

2016 3 month precipitation outlook

2016 3-month precipitation outlook

So what El Niño effects can our region expect
to see for the upcoming winter and spring?  According to NOAA’s climate prediction
center
, our region is likely to experience a mild winter temperature-wise with below-normal precipitation. The image on the right shows areas of the United States expected to have above-normal precipitation in green and
below-normal precipitation in brown over the next three months. Most of Ohio is colored in brown. The outlook for spring is similar, with near-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

Is this forecast a sure bet? It isn’t. The Earth’s climate systems are extremely complex, and El Niño is only one of many factors influencing our weather. The temperature and precipitation outcomes we experience this winter are a result of a multitude of complex interactions among the Earth’s weather systems. We can only wait and see!

Region’s water levels more stable than other parts of the U.S.

By Mike Ekberg, MCD water resources manager

Stories about droughts, water shortages, and aquifers drying up are in the news with regularity these days, especially in places throughout the western United States.

What are the chances that our aquifer could run dry? Are the water levels in the Great Miami River Watershed and its buried valley aquifer increasing, declining or staying the same?

According to the measurements taken by MCD over the last 30 years, the water supplies in the Great Miami River (GMR) Watershed are in what’s called a steady state. That means the amount of water that flows into and out of the watershed – the 4,000 square miles of land that drain to the Great Miami River – is relatively constant over the last 30 years.

2014 Great Miami River Watershed precipitation totals

2014 Great Miami River Watershed precipitation totals

In 2014, the Great Miami River Watershed received 39.05 inches of rain and snowmelt (inflows) – which matches the long-term average. That amount of water equals 2.7 trillion gallons of water.

Water leaving the region through evaporation and plant uptake (outflows) averages about 26 inches or nearly 1.8 trillion gallons.

On average, another 900 billion gallons of water flows into the Great Miami River through runoff each year. Runoff is water that flows over the land (overland flows), runs through soils (interflow) and into the aquifers (groundwater flow).

That’s 2.7 million gallons into the watershed and another 2.7 million gallons out of the watershed.

Groundwater levels in aquifer

Graph shows seasonal fluctuations in the depth to groundwater. Over the last 30 years, there is no upward or downward trend.

There are fluctuations in water levels year to year, but over the long term, precipitation and runoff balance each other out, leaving the total amount of water stored in the Great Miami River Watershed essentially the same.

Another factor in water usage is human use. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says people use about 124 billion gallons of water per year, mostly for public water supply, industry, and cooling water for power generation. Most of that water returns to the Great Miami River Watershed through municipal sewer and industrial wastewater treatment plants. Of the 124 billion gallons of water used by people, MCD estimates only about 23 billion gallons of water is actually consumed or removed from the watershed before it reaches the Great Miami River. Although 23 billion gallons of water sounds like a huge quantity, it’s only a small amount when compared with the 2.7 trillion gallons that enter and exit the watershed each year.

While our water levels are steady today, that’s no guarantee for the future. Changing weather patterns and increasing water uses by people are unknown. That’s why it’s critical to track water over time and why MCD measures precipitation and river flows throughout the watershed using a network of gages.

Keeping an eye on water levels is vital to detecting trends so that policies and programs can safeguard our water supplies.