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Vancouver slow to act on rain runoff

More rain and violent storms are in store for Vancouver as climate change and urban heat effects alter weather patterns….

By Maura Forrest , in Environment Feature story , on February 12, 2014 Tags: , , , ,

More rain and violent storms are in store for Vancouver as climate change and urban heat effects alter weather patterns.

But experts say the city is unprepared, which could lead to more flooded streets and basements.

Vancouver has experimented with innovative ways of managing stormwater, but nothing has been implemented city-wide.

“Vancouver talks a lot but they are not doing a hell of a lot,” said Hans Schreier, a professor who studies water management at the University of British Columbia. “We’re missing the boat.”

Schreier said other cities with similar climates are far ahead of Vancouver in dealing with water runoff.

A leader in water management

Portland, for example, has invested heavily in projects like rain gardens and roadside swales, which absorb and purify water from the streets.

The city addressed excess runoff 20 years ago to minimize frequent overflows from its combined sewer system into the Willamette River.

“We looked for low-cost alternatives that would reduce the volume of stormwater,” said Emily Hauth, a project manager with Portland’s sustainable stormwater management program.

She said the annual number of overflows is down from 60 to less than four.

Vancouver is no stranger to overflows from its own combined sewer system. The city is currently working to separate the sewers so runoff and sewage will flow through separate pipes. But the process is costly and will take decades to complete.

Hauth said separating the sewers would have cost too much compared with green roofs and swales.

Vancouver’s efforts

Craig Beattie, Sinclair Healy and John Stager
Craig Beattie (left) approached the city about the Crown Street project in 2002.

A decade ago, Vancouver completed a couple of pilot projects similar to Portland’s initiatives. But they were plagued by budget overruns and engineering oversights.

The section of Crown Street south of Marine Drive was the city’s first attempt to build roadside swales to absorb rainwater and prevent polluted water from flowing into Musqueam Creek.

“The street had really become quite broken up,” said Craig Beattie, a Crown Street resident who rallied local support for the project. “There were all sorts of problems with stormwater erosion on both sides.”

But Beattie said the engineers vastly exceeded their budget and didn’t deliver what they promised. He noted that the swales were dug much deeper than planned and the street’s slope caused the water to drain on the wrong side.

Elsewhere, three of Vancouver’s residential alleys were transformed into grassy, permeable strips known as country lanes, which did more for residents than simply filter water.

“They tend to be cooler, they’re greener and more pleasant to look at,” said Mike Klassen, who lives along one of the lanes.

But the lanes were never replicated because residents were reluctant to see their property taxes increase to pay for them.

By contrast, Portland residents pay stormwater fees that are reduced when they build green infrastructure.

Looking ahead

According to a city report, Vancouver could see 30 per cent more rain on wet days by 2050 than it did in 2000.

Vancouver is now developing an integrated storm water management plan to be completed by the end of 2014.

The plan will ensure that rainwater capture and reuse, pervious paving, bioswales, rain gardens, constructed wetlands and absorbent landscapes are standard in Vancouver, according to a city statement.

But Coun. Andrea Reimer noted that most initiatives are on hold until the management plan is published.

“The plan will enable new action, but we’re not doing new action while we’re writing the plan.”

Schreier said residents should invest in green infrastructure on their own properties. But for many, the benefits don’t outweigh the cost.

Scot Hein, the city’s senior urban designer, said that housing affordability is a major barrier to stormwater management.

“If not having a green roof means I can just afford a mortgage on a small place in Vancouver, then I really don’t care about a green roof.”