Think of the saying, when it rains, it pours and then add snowmelt, impervious urban areas that don’t absorb precipitation and what do you get? Yup, you got it. Flooded streets, neighbourhoods and homes. Have you ever wondered how all this rain and stormwater can be better managed within a city?
Fundamentally, let us note that flooding is a challenging social and environmental issue. However, if flooding is properly framed, it can be used to build public demand for Natural Infrastructure (NI) as explained by Unflood Ontario, a movement dedicated to raising awareness of the risk and reducing the impact of flooding in Ontario.
To the same degree, stormwater can pose health and safety risks to the public because it picks up pollutants when it flows across impervious surfaces such as sidewalks, roads and roofs, creating runoff. This polluted runoff overflows into waterways when combined with wastewater from homes and businesses. Therefore, managing stormwater and getting it off the impervious surfaces protects the health and safety of the public, as well as our water bodies.
The phrase Natural Infrastructure can be used interchangeably with Green Infrastructure. Several cities around the world including the City of Buffalo are adopting Green Infrastructure to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. For instance, through the Raincheck Program, the City of Buffalo and Buffalo Sewer Authority are implementing Green Infrastructure to tackle the stormwater challenge, respond to the climate emergency, and advance social and environmental justice. This program includes the use of smart technology that uses real-time sensors to divert stormwater away from parts of the sewer system hit with lots of rain and snowmelt.
Like many older cities, the City of Buffalo uses a combined sewer system. Unlike the separate sewer system that carries wastewater and surface runoff water separately, the combined sewer system uses the same pipe to carry the wastewater and the surface runoff water to treatment plants, making it sensitive to overflow events. The capacity of a treatment plant can be greatly affected by exceedingly large volumes of wastewater in a combined sewer system during periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. It is for this reason that combined sewer systems are created to accommodate occasional overflows, discharging excess wastewater to nearby waterbodies. These overflows from combined sewer systems are a major source of water pollution and concern because they contain untreated waste and other toxic materials that flows into the water bodies.
The City of Buffalo manages its stormwater challenge from rain and snowmelt by directing it to the sewer system. The City’s sewer system discharges excess waste and stormwater into local waterways during wet weather and in dry weather, the City’s combined sewer system carries wastewater and sewage from homes and businesses to the sewage plant for treatment before it is released into the Niagara River.
Education and public engagement are also vital for the understanding of Natural Infrastructure. For instance, Buffalo utilizes signage, youth programs and public education to create awareness of stormwater challenges and the actions taken by the city. In Ontario, Unflood Ontario is generating awareness through public education about NI by engaging the public on the impacts of floods, inspiring the public to adopt urban NI, encouraging the government to provide funding for NI and working with many stakeholders to ensure multiple benefits of NI are realized. As explained by Franz Hartmann from the Small Change Fund, Green Infrastructure also offers co-benefits including job creation, neighbourhood beautification and climate resiliency. To learn more about how the City of Buffalo is managing its stormwater challenge and the efforts of Unflood Ontario, please listen to this webinar.
By, Juliet Rennick, Outreach Coordinator, Clean Air Partnership