North Carolina Plans For Green-Infrastructure To Counter Storms

Photo: North Carolina Coastal Federation

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

North Carolina had its second-wettest year on record in 2020 with heavier, more frequent rainstorms. Conventional ways of dealing with stormwater incorporate concrete and asphalt surfaces that lead to runoff, whisking pollutants like lawn fertilizer, plastic reuse, salt, and car oil into local water bodies. Now, the North Carolina Coastal Federation has a nature-based plan for dealing with heavy rainfall that captures and filters water instead. Green infrastructure includes solutions like rain gardens, restoring wetlands, and permeable pavement. The state plan calls for comprehensive incorporation of nature-based stormwater strategies across roadways, farmland, and in new building construction. 

Why This Matters: It’s not just sea-level rise that causes increased flooding and infrastructure damage: heavy rains can be just as disruptive. Using plants, dirt, and other natural ways to handle excess water is often simpler and more cost-effective than their conventional counterparts. These solutions can help restore the natural water movement of an area, leading to less flooding and better water quality overall. By swapping drainage pipes for a rain garden, we can also increase people’s access to green spaces and could even count toward the Biden administration’s commitment to conserve 30% of the U.S. for nature by 2030. Nature-based solutions are pretty much a no-brainer — but they require shifting our mindset away from traditional construction.

National Risk: Thanks to climate change, more intense tropical storms and hurricanes as well as heavier non-storm rainfall are more frequent nation-wide. A 2019 study found that extreme rainfall events happened 85% more often in the eastern U.S. in 2017 than they did in 1950. “The take-home message is that infrastructure in most parts of the country is no longer performing at the level that it’s supposed to because of the big changes that we’ve seen in extreme rainfall,” Daniel Wright, the study’s lead author and a hydrologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a press release.

A draft EPA report on stormwater from last year notes that there is currently no comprehensive national accounting of stormwater costs and needs, although the estimated funding gap is $10 billion. 

Raise a Glass for Sierra Nevada’s Sustainable Brewery: The state already has a solid example of nature-based stormwater in action: western North Carolina’s Sierra Nevada Mills River brewery. The architects and engineers worked to create a sustainable building from the beginning, and stormwater management was part of the plan. Some features include:

  • Permeable parking lot pavement made of stone, sand, and gravel allows rainwater to percolate into the groundwater below. This reduces erosion and prevents any debris or oil from the parking lot from running into the nearby French Broad River. 
  • Bioswales — shallow basins planted with vegetation — also collect stormwater across the parking lot in place of concrete gutters and storm sewers.  
  • Cisterns collect thousands of gallons of water from rainfall, including an underwater cistern that gathers from the parking lot and bioswales.

To Go Deeper: Read the full North Carolina plan here.

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