Warmer, Wetter, Wilder | Climate Change Can Deliver a Deluge

Climate change is taking a toll globally as we witness the increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other natural disasters impacting communities near and far. Addressing climate change will require a diversity of approaches as we work to reduce the greenhouse gasses causing the crisis while supporting our ability to adapt and avoid the worst climate impacts.

As RiverLink works to protect the vitality of the French Broad River and the many streams that join to form her main stem, we must address the additional challenges climate change brings to bear in our region. An increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tropical depressions and intense thunderstorms as well as prolonged periods of drought are some of the effects of climate change already impacting Western North Carolina and our beloved French Broad River.

How Does Climate Change Impact Stormwater?

Human activities including burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, and expanding animal agriculture have been adding their emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane, to Earth’s atmosphere for nearly two centuries. These compounds are often called greenhouse gasses because they trap excess heat from the sun that would otherwise be released back into the outer atmosphere.

Here in Western North Carolina, regional climate data show we are experiencing heavier rainfall during storm events as a result of a warming climate. A warmer atmosphere is able to store more water vapor before releasing it, thus producing heavier storms. These powerful storms can release vast quantities of rainfall over a short period of time, increasing the risk of landslides, flash floods, erosion, and water pollution.

Increased heat in the atmosphere is not only leading to more rain; climate change is responsible for an increase in extreme weather on both ends of the spectrum. It may seem counterintuitive, but recent climate data projections show how heavy rainfall is often preceded by an extended period of drought, amplifying the risks caused by large storms. Because dry soils are less able to absorb rainfall, a heavy storm following a drought produces even more runoff. As less water is able to be absorbed, the rainfall is unable to alleviate drought conditions, making these conditions more likely to persist. Dry soils are also more likely to be carried into our waterways, adding sediment and other pollutants to these vulnerable ecosystems.

When It Rains, It Pours

More rain means–you guessed it–more stormwater! And more stormwater means more water contamination and flooding.

In urban areas like Asheville and Hendersonville, an increase in development combined with more intense rain events create a perfect storm of conditions that lead to more stormwater runoff. As development covers more natural areas with hard surfaces, rainwater is no longer able to sink into the ground where it falls. That runoff is then directed into storm drains where it flows untreated into our streams and rivers—carrying pollutants including sediment, bacteria, chemicals and trash into the French Broad.

It’s Easy Being Green: Utilizing Green Infrastructure to Boost Climate Resilience

With the confluence of challenges climate change and development bring, addressing stormwater runoff can feel overwhelming.  Fortunately, there are many solutions available to help us manage our stormwater while providing additional benefits to our communities.  Green infrastructure is a natural solution for improved stormwater management and increased community resilience to climate impacts.  

Rain barrels and cisterns, rain gardens, downspout disconnection, constructed wetlands, bioretention cells, and retention ponds—these are all nature-inspired strategies for holding stormwater on site, allowing it to filter into the soil while providing opportunities for pollutants to be removed before entering our waterways.  These strategies slow the flow of stormwater, spread it out over a wider area and allow it to sink into the soil rather than flowing fast across hard surfaces, collecting pollutants to deposit into our rivers. 

At the same time, green infrastructure can provide shade, beauty, and vital habitat for native plant and animal species.  When well designed, green infrastructure offers opportunities for public amenities that benefit communities, including access to green space, walking trails and other places to be active, and much more. By providing more opportunities for rainwater to soak in where it falls, green infrastructure helps reduce flood risks and drought impacts caused by a changing climate.  

Stormwater Parks: A Municipal Strategy for Green Infrastructure

Have you visited the Patton Park Stormwater Stroll in Hendersonville? Designed to treat over one million gallons of stormwater onsite, the park incorporates rain cisterns, a retention pond, a stormwater wetland, rain gardens, and permeable pavement along with educational signs to explain the function and purpose of each element. Stormwater parks are an excellent strategy for municipalities to meet multiple goals–treating large quantities of stormwater, providing green space for public recreation, and creating habitat for wildlife. You can visit the site virtually with Mike Huffman, Hendersonville’s Stormwater Division Manager here, or visit in person and experience the multitude of benefits green infrastructure can provide!

The city of Lenexa, Kansas is another great example of a city using the power of green infrastructure to treat large volumes of runoff.  One creative project in Lenexa is the Raindrop Walk, which guides visitors on the journey of a raindrop, highlighting rain gardens, green and gray infrastructure, public green space, native plants and the riparian buffer and each of their roles in purifying runoff before it reaches Mill Creek.  The walk features one of four “Rain to Recreation” parks in Lenexa—Central Green—which treats stormwater through the use of “welcoming open green space, native grasses and flowers, natural habitat, a picturesque stream and trails to the heart of City Center.” Lenexa’s innovative approach to stormwater management includes a cost-share program that helps residents install rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, permeable pavers, and native plants in their own yards.

A Tale of Two Cities: Inequity in Stormwater

Climate change is impacting marginalized communities disproportionately, but climate is not the only risk factor impacting our neighbors. Historic injustices in communities of color, such as redlining, urban renewal, and discriminatory lending practices, have created vulnerabilities that reduce people’s capacity to prepare for and rebound from natural disasters like floods and fires.  Communities of color often find themselves confined to living in the most ecologically vulnerable and polluted areas of U.S. cities as a result of these policies. 

The same social forces that have historically denied resources to communities of color have also impacted the development and expansion of our municipal stormwater systems.  Due to chronic underinvestment and neglect from past municipal leadership, a lack of gray stormwater infrastructure like storm pipes and storm drains disproportionately harms our most vulnerable residents, causing increased nuisance flooding and pollution due to excess runoff in these neighborhoods. 

As the City of Asheville’s Climate Justice Map and Climate Resilience Assessment reveal, many of our city’s most climate vulnerable communities are living in the most racially diverse parts of town. Addressing these compounding inequities will require intentional collaboration with and investment in vulnerable communities to shore up climate resilience while simultaneously addressing the root causes of vulnerability. 

Stormwater Solutions: Case Studies for Equity in Stormwater

Thankfully, more cities are taking on the challenge of addressing equity in their community development practices. With the awareness that many communities have been historically denied resources, municipalities are bringing an equity focus to their work on stormwater and prioritizing under-resourced neighborhoods as the first beneficiaries of municipal green infrastructure projects.  

An equity lens applied to green stormwater management prioritizes community engagement, resident-identified needs and the co-benefits green infrastructure can provide marginalized communities when implemented thoughtfully and intentionally.  Some of these co-benefits include increased access to nature, enhanced climate resilience for vulnerable neighborhoods, improved property values in economically distressed areas, opportunities for green job creation and economic revitalization, expansion of community capacity for building power, creation of spaces to enhance community connectedness, and opportunities to address past and present harms and build trust with impacted community members.

One inspiring example of this work is happening in Atlanta, Georgia.  After offering the nation’s first publicly issued Environmental Impact Bond, the city was able to raise $14 million for equitable green infrastructure projects in the Proctor Creek Watershed, in an area of the city that has been severely and disproportionately impacted by polluted stormwater runoff and flooding.  The project’s explicit goals are to “alleviate local flooding and improve water quality and stream health, while also providing access to greenspace, improved air quality, public environmental education, restored native habitat, and green jobs.”  Collectively, these projects will treat and manage over 55 million gallons of stormwater annually.  (EIB Fact Sheet for Green Infrastructure in Proctor Creek).  Explore the Proctor Creek Story Map to learn more about this inspiring project!

Another demonstration of equitable green infrastructure can be found locally in RiverLink’s collaborative work with the Southside community, which culminated in the development of the Southside Community Stormwater Project.  Due to high levels of impairment in Nasty Branch (known as Town Branch by those outside the community)—which flows through the historic Black Southside community—this neighborhood was identified as a high priority for restoration work.

Through the process of developing the Central Asheville Watershed Plan, RiverLink convened community meetings to gather input on residents’ needs and insight into the challenges the watershed and the people living within it are facing.  As part of this process, residents identified flooding issues in a parking lot located at Erskine Apartments. The Southside Community Stormwater Project was designed to alleviate this flooding through the installation of a constructed wetland and regenerative stormwater conveyance (a constructed streambed).  The purpose of these features is to slow the flow of stormwater runoff and contain it for a period of time, allowing the water to be treated by plants and soil before entering Nasty Branch and ultimately the French Broad River.  

RiverLink’s collaboration with the Southside Community led to the creation of a beautiful and natural community space that has attracted deer, songbirds, waterfowl, butterflies and frogs.  The regenerative stormwater conveyance flows with water after storms, drawing neighborhood children to play in its waters.  The installation of walking paths, bridges, a shade structure, benches, and a memorial garden address resident desires for greater community connectivity and a space to honor lost loved ones. 

As more practitioners are beginning to take equity concerns into consideration, resources and organizations are developing to help guide this work.  One excellent resource is The Equity Guide for Green Stormwater Infrastructure Practitioners. The guide serves as a roadmap and assessment tool for practitioners seeking to center equity in their work.  Another wonderful resource is the research project, “Is Green Infrastructure a Universal Good?,” which examines 122 green infrastructure plans and projects in 20 diverse U.S. cities and rates them based on equity goals and outcomes. As the community of green stormwater infrastructure practitioners who prioritize equity continues to grow, we celebrate opportunities to connect with and learn from others working to create stormwater solutions that will lift all boats caught in the rising tides of climate change.

Every Drop Counts

Water has a way of connecting us more literally and persistently than any other natural resource. As author and historian Wilma Dykeman explained in her book The French Broad,  the lives of every living being in our river drainage intersect via these streams and waterways—making us responsible for maintaining the health of the river that drives an economic engine worth $3.8 billion in the WNC region. As with any complex problem, it will take a diversity of approaches to address the compounding challenges of climate change, increased development, and stormwater runoff in the French Broad.

Fortunately, the solutions are within reach. RiverLink’s WaterRICH guide provides easy to follow instructions for implementing stormwater solutions such as rain barrels, rain gardens, on contour swales, and downspout disconnection.  Stay tuned for upcoming workshops and opportunities for support in implementing these solutions by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media! 

Reduce Rain Runoff

How Can You Help?

Ready to learn more? Head over to our Take Action page to learn more about simple ways you can reduce rain runoff at your residence or business.