Issues of the Environment: A pre-Earth Day look at progress and challenges in Washtenaw County
- The Earth Day Theme 2023 is "Invest in Our Planet". This year's Earth Day theme is designed to persuade businesses, governments, and citizens around the world of the need to invest in our planet to improve our environment and give our descendants a better and safer future. (Source: *directly quoted* https://thursd.com/articles/earth-day-theme#:~:text=The%20Earth%20Day%20Theme%202023,a%20better%20and%20safer%20future.)
- The Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s office has invested in water infrastructure improvements on a macro and micro level. As the population of the county has grown, the need to keep up with improvements that manage flooding, erosion, and contamination hazards (such as road runoff from byproducts of car tires or salt, PFAS, dioxane, and other byproducts from manufacturing) has expanded. Climate change and changing weather patterns (i.e. More rain, heavier downfall, more extreme weather occurrences, etc...) also must be accounted for in managing water infrastructure.
- Before 1970, nearly all construction was done without planning for stormwater capture. Evan Pratt, Water Resources Commissioner for Washtenaw County, says studies have shown that peak rainfall from large storms has increased 40% from the 1960s to 2011, and an additional 70% increase in peak rainfall is expected by the end of the century. This means more flooding, unless green infrastructure is implemented to manage the impending water increase.
Some of the county’s most recent water infrastructure investments include partnerships with faith-based groups, particularly churches in underserved areas of Washtenaw County to support the creation of rain gardens and bioswales as a way to manage stormwater. Current projects include:
- Pastor Willie Powell from Grace Fellowship and House of Solutions on Harris Road – construction starts soon.
- Pastor Scott Estell from Faithway Baptist on Packard. Here are project photos.
- Another large green infrastructure project at Churchill Downs Park In southwest Ann Arbor was completed at the end of 2022. The $3 million “big dig” created a creek at the bottom of a deep basin in the park that can hold 3.3 million gallons of water if a large storm occurs. This green infrastructure design should protect homeowners in the area from repetitious flooding that has plagued the area for decades. Harry Sheehan, Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner, explains that “The project provided 10 acre-feet of flood protection upstream of the Lawton neighborhood to reduce flooding on streets and private property. That’s one football field of water, 10’ high. There was also a large sediment capture structure that helped remove phosphorus and eroded soils to protect Mallett Creek and the Huron River downstream.”
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair with a pre-Earth Day edition of Issues of the Environment. Earth Day is going to be recognized globally on Saturday, April 22nd, and this year's theme is "Invest in our Planet". I wanted to get a look at the recent investments that have been made in our community and take a peek ahead at the investment to come. Who better to give us an overview than Evan Pratt. Evan is Washtenaw County's Water Resources Commissioner, and it's really good to have you back on WEMU, Evan.
Evan Pratt: It's great to be here again. David, Thanks again for being a wonderful partner.
David Fair: Well, do you have a particular ritual or manner of personal observance when Earth Day rolls around each year? Or do you just kind of roll with what comes?
Evan Pratt: You know, for me, David, at least every weekend is Earth Day. I like to be outside. I like to work in the yard. So, that's the main ritual. As far as the office goes, we typically have staff around the county at a number of events. I think we've got four different events covered, sprinkling around the county--you know, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor, Saline and those areas. So, I think that's the main thing. Just got to look up at the sky and remember why we're here.
David Fair: As we look at the state of our environment, the quality of our water, which is, of course, dependent on those skies and the health of our land as well. How would you rate Washtenaw County as it stands today?
Evan Pratt: Yeah, we've seen a lot of progress since the sixties and seventies, so we're a lot better. But as as you may be aware, we're in a state that's got 23,000 contaminated sites, and there's a good number of those in Washtenaw County. So, there's still work to be done. It keeps me busy. Let's just put it that way.
David Fair: Well, we know some of the bigger challenges: the expanding one-four dioxane plume from the old Gelman facility, PFAS contamination in the Huron River, brownfields in need of cleanup and redevelopment scattered throughout the county. What are some of maybe the lesser-known issues that you're contending with?
Evan Pratt: Yeah, that's a great idea, David, So, I'll just say this is the keeps me up at night list. My first response is usually just climate, increasing rainfall. And I know a lot of people are aware of that, but my office and the team that we've got here does a lot of that work behind the scenes for climate resilience. And what we've really been trying to focus on and, you know, kind of have at the center of our mission is kind of three strategies to deal with climate: work on regional storage, work on that development level storage, and then work on very localized storage, such as rain gardens in people's yards. So, those three areas in climate are really top of mind, partly because the biggest storms have increased by about 35% since the early fifties when they really started keeping track. And the forecasts are substantially greater by end of century. Even middle-of-the-road forecasts say we might see 70% more increase in those peak rainfalls. So, that's what keeps me up at night--how do we continue to provide resiliency in an area that's kind of on a shoestring budget.
David Fair: WEMU's pre-Earth Day edition of Issues of the Environment continues with Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner Evan Pratt. And so much is being done to try and adapt to a changing climate. Your office has very specifically been investing in water infrastructure improvements on both a micro and macro level, and that really comes down to how are we going to create modern day infrastructure that will accommodate all that will be needed in the storms you describe.
Evan Pratt: Yeah. And, you know, to me, we've got a lot of infrastructure out there. It's a matter of supplementing it, and we're not trying to move water that's causing a problem in one place, so that it causes a problem in another place. So, that turns into, you know, finding more opportunities for storage, retrofitting existing basins or adding ones. We recently completed one was City of Ann Arbor in a neighborhood that has had repeat flooding events. And when I say flooding, I'm not talking about an annoyance that affects my lawn mowing. I'm talking about cars floating down streets in heavy rains. So, this was done over in the vicinity of Scio Church Road. So, that's a regional-type storage basin, a little bit bigger than neighborhood level that may be one of our smaller regional basins that covers a couple of square miles. So, that's one example of at the larger scale, you know, of what we've been able to implement in partnership with the local communities.
David Fair: And I wanted to talk about that partnership. It takes more than a unit of government and local policy to address all of the needs. I believe, Evan, the faith-based community has become an important part of making progress in our community.
Evan Pratt: Absolutely. David, Harry Sheehan in our office here has been doing grant writing for the better part of 20 years. And he came up with a proposal that one of the foundations really liked. And we obtained money for what we're calling faith-based infrastructure. Essentially, we've got a couple of churches, lots of rooftop, lots of pavement, but lots of grass too. A couple of churches on the east side of the county, one in Ypsilanti Township, I think both in Ypsilanti Township, actually, and they're looking to partner with us. And the partnership is great because it really helps us when there's volunteers to help with that maintenance that are local. And they know what they'd like to see in their frontyard or in their backyard.
David Fair: I'm quite sure that this won't be news to you, but there are times in our lives where government and bureaucracy move more slowly than we would like sometimes. Are you satisfied with the pace and level of investment that's being made to build that healthier and more sustainable and equitable environment in Washtenaw County?
Evan Pratt: Well, it's not so much my satisfaction, David. I get a feeling from the type of phone calls we get. The general sentiment is most folks would like to see that move a lot faster. What I've got to work with is the level of investment that people are willing to do so far. I would say, though, on the urgency side of things, I'm just looking at the final draft of Michigan's infrastructure report card for 2023. That probably won't be released until May. On the bright side, stormwater has gone up a little bit. On the downside, that means we went from a D-minus to a D. So, as I said at the beginning, we still got some work to do. I'd like to see things go faster. A lot of talk about infrastructure money was out there, but not much of that is directed at resilience in stormwater, particularly in the Midwest. Boy, if you're in somebody's basement that's flooded out and you see what happens there, it's pretty hard to say we're investing enough.
David Fair: We continue our pre-Earth Day conversation with Evan Pratt on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. We know that Ann Arbor has its A2Zero plan and seeks to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030. Similarly, Washtenaw County has its Resilient Washtenaw plan. Again, it's a kind of comprehensive look at approaching environmental sustainability and future environmental health. What does that mean in terms of the work your office is doing?
Evan Pratt: Yeah, that's a great question. One thing about these climate resilience plans is they're primarily aimed at reduction of greenhouse gases, which, of course, we need to do. We need to go right to the source. What I really like about the county plan is that it also identifies some steps that could and really should be taken to start us down the path of what type of investment would be appropriate to provide more mitigation. And I'm just going to call out a very detailed item. There's a half million dollar line item in there. None of this is funded, but this is the framework. Here's what the big picture looks like: a half million dollar line item to do what I like to call a vulnerability analysis. So, I mentioned that rainfall is going up, has gone up. We know it's going to continue to go up in these big storms. So, now the 100-year flood plain maps that we have, they're really more like a 70-year floodplain. So, anybody who is in an area that's already vulnerable to a weather-type emergency or even other emergencies that aren't weather-related, some of their vulnerability is related to how easy is it for them to bridge gaps in just buying water. How close is a grocery store? How quickly can they recover If there is a disaster? Can they get out of their house? Or is the road going to be flooded? So, any area that already is affected in the current weather patterns we have, we know those areas are going to be more severely affected going forward. And we should suspect that there are going to be areas that are currently highly vulnerable that are going to get more vulnerable over time. So, investing a half million dollars to really be able to draw out on a map, where are these places? Who are the people that need the assistance greatest? How can we make sure that these folks are going to be able to get the most basic things: water, food, access to medical care, that type of thing? So, that's what I'm really excited about in that plan. It doesn't solve all the water problems, but it tells us with limited resources and where do we need to be making sure that we make investments, and we can make our case based on that.
David Fair: At what level would you rate your optimism that we will be able to meet the challenges of a changing climate?
Evan Pratt: In my world, in my industry, David, most of us are of the understanding that we're going to be able to provide a lower level of service over time. Even if we doubled our investment today, we're still playing catch-up from, let's say, the last 50, 60 years where rainfall has increased quite a bit. So, systems are stressed. So, I hope we can keep up and provide close to the level of service that we've had. But, quite honestly, I believe that it's most likely that if we have an intersection somewhere that historically is flooded, maybe once every five years, we might see that intersection flood, you know, once every three years as we go forward. But we're going to do everything we can to keep up. And, like I say, let's supplement what we have. Let's make best use of what we have, figure out how to squeeze a couple more drops out of the lemons that we've got, and then figure out where are the folks who we need to provide a little extra benefit to sooner to help keep them out of harm's way and help folks recover more quickly from disasters.
David Fair: A lot of work lay ahead, but it's a good reminder every Earth Day that there is work to be done, and it's going to take a collective effort. Thank you so much, Evan. And an early happy Earth Day to you.
Evan Pratt: Thank you. Happy Earth Day to you and all our listeners out there. I hope everybody plants a tree this year.
David Fair: That is Evan Pratt. He is Washtenaw County's water resources commissioner and has been our guest on Issues of the Environment. To find more information about today's conversation and to visit the Issues of the Environment archive, take a look at our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
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