We Rhode Islanders are experiencing the worst flooding in memory this week, with record rainfalls of 8-9 inches in two days and many of our rivers not only at flood stage but at record levels that have broken records set barely two weeks ago. And we're painfully experiencing what "WATERSHED" can mean when too much water has to drain in too little time.
A watershed is essentially a natural, intricate system for draining water from the land. The EPA describes watersheds this way:
"We all live in a watershed -- the area that drains to a common waterway, such as a stream, lake, estuary, wetland, aquifer, or even the ocean -- and our individual actions can directly affect it. Working together using a watershed approach will help protect our nation's water resources."
"John Wesley Powell, scientist geographer, put it best when he said that a watershed is:
'that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.'"
Source: EPA Watershed Website
The Providence Journal published a good description of How a river floods: Rainfall just the beginning, (by C. Eugene Emery Jr., Journal Staff Writer on March 30, 2010. I think I'd reword the title, though, to be "How a river floods: An extraordinary rainfall can be the last straw." The article highlights that even though the rainfall has ended, the flooding will still increase for a while before subsiding. But how we work and plan together to manage our local watersheds BEFORE the rainy days can make things better or worse than they might have been.
This rainfall is so extraordinary that no matter how well we had prepared, Rhode Island would be in an emergency. Many Rhode Islanders work hard to manage our watersheds year in and year out, among them The Friends of the Pawtuxet. I'm sure that a lot of folks don't think the Pawtuxet is their friend today as the river's waters flood their homes and streets, destroying their belongings. But our rivers will continue to need all of us to be Friends, to speak up in public meetings and reasonably deal with the issues involved in development and water management.
The worst flooding is along the Pawtuxet River. Here is the Pawtuxet River Watershed Authority description of this watershed comprised of 64 ponds, 93 brooks, 7 tributary rivers, and 18 dams:
"The Pawtuxet River watershed, located in central-western Rhode Island, is the largest watershed in the state. The river flows generally from west to east. Its headwaters are in the hills of western Rhode Island. Its mouth is in historic Pawtuxet Village between the cities of Warwick and Cranston, the state's second and third largest cities. The watershed encompasses all or portions of the following communities: Coventry, Cranston, East Greenwich, Exeter, Foster, Glocester, Johnston, Providence, Scituate, Warwick, West Greenwich, and West Warwick. The Pawtuxet River watershed comprises the Scituate Reservoir and its tributaries, the North Branch of the Pawtuxet, the Pocasset River, the Big River and its tributaries, the Flat River Reservoir and its tributaries. the South Branch of the Pawtuxet, and the main stem of the Pawtuxet."
Gene Emery's article in the Projo points out some of the factors involved in the buildup of the rivers' waters. I've elaborated a little more on the March 29 PREFLOOD factors:
- A complex river system with several large tributaries and ponds. The Pawtuxet takes the natural runoff from all the smaller streams and rivers listed above that drain into it.
- Land use practices that prevent water from soaking into the ground.
- Development that does not incorporate systems for preventing runoff from roofs and parking lots, such as green roofs, water barrels, rain gardens, catchment basins.
- Urban sprawl that increases the paved surfaces on our land, and often along our rivers.
- Pressure to develop wetlands that would absorb extreme amounts of water.
- Impervious pavement (water can't go through it, so it runs off from paved surface to paved surface eventually going directly into the storm drains). Parking lots can be paved with materials that let the water through, and perhaps damaged pavements could be replaced with this kind of material.
- Weak dams that we have not repaired, maintained well enough, or removed because of cost-cutting, pressures to fund other projects, the economy.... Ongoing proper management of the dams in Rhode Island is critically important on March 31, 2010, although most days it does not seem so. The care of dams requires ongoing voter support for enough DEM staff (which has been seriously cut in the last few years) and for funds for these projects, among other things.
- Acquisition of development rights to land in flood zones to control flooding when it occurs. Rhode Islanders have been champion supporters of open space acquisition bonds. We must continue to support the funding of floodplain projects also.
- Previously saturated ground from earlier rains. The ground was still coping with the record rains of two weeks ago when this latest storm came through March 29-30, 2010. We weren't sitting ducks, but rather we were floating ducks on March 29.
This video is from March 8 (!), WEEKS BEFORE BOTH record-breaking storms we've suffered since mid-March, about buying up development rights to land along the Pocasset and Pawtuxet Rivers to help control flooding.
This video was from March 15, so you can imagine how saturated the land is by March 29:
This is truly an extraordinary situation. We can't do anything about how much rain falls in a day. There will always be flooding now and then. But there are some sensible long-term responses we can make. Anyone can explore YouTube for videos of the latest flood pictures, and local news programs such as the Rhode Show have collections of photos and videos that may raise other issues and give us ideas for future action.
Our watersheds bring Rhode Islanders into a community, and we need to help out our neighbors who have been flooded in the short term. In the long term, we can also learn more about a "watershed approach" and work together to minimize the effects of future floods.