High Waters, Price of Development?

Pennsylvania's never seen a Katrina, but big storms have devastated communities here. Nearly two years after Hurricane Ivan hit, some businesses and residents still hurt. Environmental officials say flooding has worsened statewide in the last century because of development. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan looks at flooding and ways to prevent it.

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OPEN: Pennsylvania's never seen a Katrina, but big storms have devastated communities here. Nearly two years after Hurricane Ivan hit, some businesses and residents still hurt. Environmental officials say flooding has worsened statewide in the last century because of development. In our continuing series, The Many Faces of Sprawl, The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan looks at flooding and ways to prevent it.

JORDAN: Chartiers Creek soared over its banks in September 2004, wreaking havoc on homes and businesses in communities south of Pittsburgh. On Carnegie?جø¬?s Main Street, the water crashed through the door of Southwest Ballet school. Recently, school owner Virginia Nicoll stared at a homemade video of the damage.

VIDEO AND NICOLL: Absolutely amazing. That?جø¬?s how high the water went up, look at that. (Crying) I hate looking at this.

JORDAN: Inside, walls and dance barres buckled into arcs. A quarter (M) million dollars of props and costumes were soaked with sewage and silt.

Other businesses suffered, too. Some old ones that had weather previous damage from smaller rains were finally forced to close. A young man was pulled into the creek and drowned.

Such a flood?جø¬?s expected once every 500 years. But newly built housing and shopping centers upstream, toward Washington County, have outpaced storm water controls. It raises awareness that something has to change.

NICOLL: Literally, if all these businesses would go down again, can you imagine if
they?جø¬?re not paying taxes? All these things affect everybody. So it?جø¬?s not just people who own the businesses. It?جø¬?s people that live here too that need to say, ?جø¬?Hey, what?جø¬?s
going on??جø¬?

JORDAN: Throughout Pennsylvania, grassroots groups and government officials are reconsidering storm water management. But no one knows if there will be time and money to fix the problems before the next gully washer.

One effort to naturally control flooding is land conservation. In 2001, the Allegheny Land Trust purchased and preserved 80 acres of what?جø¬?s known as Wingfield Pines along Chartiers Creek, upstream from Carnegie.

KRANYK: You can see some of the ponds around here, they?جø¬?re the old water hazards from when it was a golf course.

JORDAN: Land Trust Director Roy Kranyk hikes through a valley of sycamores and brush in Wingfield Pines. Hikers, anglers and canoe enthusiasts, use the floodplain. When Ivan hit, the area held ten to 15 feet of water.

KRANYK: So it held back millions and millions of gallons of water that, if that water could not have been stored here, the peak level of the stream would?جø¬?ve been higher and the damage in Carnegie would have been higher. It?جø¬?s hard to judge how much higher, but inches matter when people were literally looking out their doorways and seeing the water creeping up to their threshold.

JORDAN: Kranyk points out that when the water receded at Wingfield Pines, no tax funding was needed to restore it. State tax dollars did cover roughly half the 450-thousand dollars used to initially preserve the land.

Pennsylvania is making other investments in watershed improvements. But state Department of Environmental Protection officials say those efforts have been hampered by federal budget cuts. The budget yet to be finalized would trim the Clean Water State Revolving Fund by nearly a third. The fund has contributed most financing for water and wastewater system upgrades in Pennsylvania.

In another effort to protect watersheds, D-E-P officials are developing guidelines to improve storm water management. The newly drafted best practices manual gives guidance especially to builders.

MEYERS: (VIA PHONE) To get better storm water control, we need to ask developers to do a longer term job of dealing with storm water.

JORDAN: Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Cathy Meyers says erosion and sediment controls like hay bales have long been required during construction.

MEYERS: Now we?جø¬?re saying that?جø¬?s fine and we need to keep doing that but we need to have controls planned for what the landscape will look like when the job?جø¬?s finished?جø¬?and it needs to continue to have a high level of protection and filtration of water so that water that?جø¬?s carrying nutrients and that?جø¬?s carrying sediments doesn?جø¬?t get into stream.

JORDAN: Specific suggestions from the state include reducing road widths and avoiding building on steep slopes. Several construction techniques recommended by the state were used in a demonstration project at the Centre County Visitors Center on Penn State University?جø¬?s campus. Central Services Manager Lloyd Rhoades walks across the wet parking lot. It?جø¬?s wet from a rain earlier in the day. It?جø¬?s a good time to see how different pavements handle water.

RHOADES: This section of parking lot?جø¬?s is porous bituminous surface. It?جø¬?s designed to allow the water to pass through
If you look over there on the standard pavement, you?جø¬?ll see some puddles. You don?جø¬?t see any here, do you? It doesn?جø¬?t run off. You don?جø¬?t deal with all the issues of standard runoff, silt, etc., etc.,

JORDAN: Penn State hasn?جø¬?t had any maintenance problems with the pavement in 10 years. But Rhoades says it?جø¬?s not durable enough for roadway use. And it?جø¬?s not exactly in demand by most buyers. Development consultant Greg Quatchak says there?جø¬?s increasing interest in building with the natural surroundings in mind. He says that will affect builders.

QUATCHAK: If people are more astute and say this is what I want to see ?جø¬? a more sustainable community with narrower streets and walking trails and opportunities to have sustainable storm water management -- Those types of design principles, people are interested in that right now. As a result, the market?جø¬?s looking for that, and so is the design community.

JORDAN: Chartiers Creek conservationists promote individual involvement in caring for the watershed. They?جø¬?ve used increased awareness about flooding as an opportunity to teach workshops on topics like building and attaching rain barrels to home gutters. But Lower Chartiers Watershed Council President Jeff Wagner says town commissioners need to step up to the plate.

Wagner works as a scientist for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Hiking around Mayview State Psychiatric Hospital across the street from Chartiers Creek, he says that many acres of grounds remained undeveloped by default because of the institution?جø¬?s decades of public ownership. The wetlands and woods held flood water during Ivan. He says that along the creek, there?جø¬?s one stretch of largely undeveloped land that presents an opportunity for sustainable building.

WAGNER: Now what I think we?جø¬?d want to ask municipal officials is let?جø¬?s be proactive about it. Let?جø¬?s look at the places we have left that even if they?جø¬?ve been disrupted and even partially developed, what are the opportunities to reserve areas like this to keep the potential and the capacity in the watershed?

JORDAN: Back at the ballet school in Carnegie, Virginia Nicoll coaxes students into snakelike stretches.

She, too, hopes municipal officials will focus on stormwater management. She?جø¬?s purchased flood insurance. But thinks the most practical insurance, the kind she wants but can?جø¬?t buy, is a regional solution to prevent further flooding. And for people to realize she, and the community, are still in business.

NICOLL: ?جø¬?I didn?جø¬?t think we would survive this. I?جø¬?ve been focusing on recovering the physicality of this building. The focus now has to be on building clientele back up.?جø¬?

JORDAN: For The Allegheny Front, I?جø¬?m Jennifer Szweda Jordan.