Last week, before tornadoes devastated communities across Michigan, record rainfall overwhelmed drainage systems and tributaries in Wayne County. The highest total was nearly 7.4 inches reported at a station in Belleville, a 24-hour total nearly all of which fell during this event.
The deluge also flooded the tunnels at Detroit Metro Airport and closed the McNamara Terminal for several hours. The National Weather Service reported that a record 3.5 inches of rain fell during that period at the airport, the most ever recorded on Aug. 24.
On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Hugh McDiarmid Jr., communications director at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, talks about how the combination climate change of more frequent extreme weather events and a loss of wetlands has disrupted the watersheds.
Definition of wetlands
Southeast Michigan watershed
Examining the link between wetland loss and flood damage
Freeways and flooding elsewhere in the country
Hello and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson. Last week, if you were in Michigan and maybe even if you weren't you probably heard about some devastating tornadoes that tore across the south- central portion of the state, basically cut a line along the I-96 corridor from Grand Rapids to the Lansing area and then hit further east. But before that, record rainfall had overwhelmed some drainage systems and tributaries in Wayne County near Metro Airport. This led to what was reported to be the highest total of rainfall 7.36 inches at a station in Belleville, Michigan. That was a 24-hour total which fell almost entirely during that event, and the deluge flooded the tunnels at Metro Airport and closed the McNamara Terminal, which is the Delta Terminal, one of the busiest for several hours. And the National Weather Service reported that a record 3.5 inches of rainfall during that period, the most ever recorded there on August 24th. So we're seeing more of these. What used to be 100-year, 500-year events are happening with greater frequency. Lots of reasons why, all related to climate change, and lots of questions always after these events about what can be done so that there isn't flooding, people's basements don't get flooded, the freeways don't get overwhelmed and have to close and motorists are stranded. A lot of this relates to wetlands and what we've done to kind of do away with nature's natural holding tanks for these kinds of rainfalls that would let the water recede slowly into the ground and then make its way into the tributaries and the outlets. Here today to talk about this is Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., who is the Director of Communications at the Michigan Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy Department. He also has an extensive background reporting on these things when he was at the Detroit Free Press and he also worked in communications for the Michigan Environmental Council for a time. And I've known Hugh for a long time. He's a former colleague and a friend and always has interesting things to say about this. So, Hugh, thanks for taking time to be here to talk about these things. I know we've done this before and probably we'll do it again, because this issue isn't going to be solved anytime soon.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
Sure thing, Jeff. Yeah, I'm glad to talk about it. I love to talk about infrastructure, both man-made and natural, as it pertains to storm water management.Jeff Cranson:
So give me the quick 101 on wetlands and why people should care, because I think it's kind of background noise for a lot of people. They might be vaguely familiar with mitigation efforts that go on when something is built that displaces a wetland, but probably don't really think about it every day and a lot of people just use terms like swamp, which is really kind of selling short the importance of the wetlands. So give me your spiel.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
Yeah sure, swamp by another name is a wetland, just like a weed by any other name is a native plant. But people in Michigan may take our water resources for granted sometimes, because we are nestled in the heart of the world's greatest freshwater ecosystem and along with that, all those waters are connected. The Great Lakes are connected to the groundwater resources that a lot of us rely on for drinking water and to all the rivers and streams that connect to them and flow into them, but also to the wetlands or swamps that some people might want to call them, which are vital resources for a lot of reasons, not only for the natural environment and biodiversity, but for flood control, for flood control, storm water control. Think of a wetland as a nature sponge, lots of spongy soils that can absorb water, storm water that comes down in torrents and hold that water temporarily and release it very slowly back into the water system. And what we've done in Michigan historically since pre-development times, has destroyed a lot of those wetlands. We've paved a lot of them over, we've turned a lot of them into farm fields where excess water is the enemy, so the water is channeled to run off fast into streams and lakes, and we've done away with well over half of the wetlands that used to exist in Michigan and even more of the coastal wetlands along the rivers and lakes, and we're paying a little bit of the price for that. Now you see the storm events that are overwhelming. Some of our man-made systems and the natural systems that used to hold that storm water back, filter the pollutants from it and release it gradually have been done away with. So at EGLE and under the direction of Governor Whitmer, we're trying to alleviate that problem, both through man-made infrastructure, ensuring that some of our pipes and our holding tanks that hold the storm water have the capacity to deal with not only storms we're seeing today, but the more volatile storms and the more heavy rainfalls that we expect to continue seeing as a result of climate change. So we're trying to implement solutions for that sort of brick and mortar, but also a lot of our natural systems, maintaining the systems that we have, restoring the systems that used to exist and encouraging, both through our financing and our guidance, what we call green infrastructure, which means you don't have to build a huge pipe to convey storm sewage if you have a lot of natural area in your community that can absorb that storm water. And so we talk about rain gardens on a small scale. We talk about preserving flood plains and ensuring that, when buildings or other infrastructure are built, that the wetlands in that area are either preserved and protected, or that, if there is no alternative but to build in some of those wetlands, do what we call mitigation, which means that you buy a wetland in some other area and preserve that in perpetuity, or that you establish other measures to protect wetlands or create man-made wetlands with long-term monitoring to ensure they're doing their job. So there are a lot of different strategies to protect the wetlands that we have left, to increase the wetlands that are available to nature to use and to ensure that we don't do any more damage than necessary to those natural systems that are so vital.Jeff Cranson:
So talk about balance because you know, former reporter I worked with used to say everybody looks in the mirror and sees an environmentalist. And so many of us think that, you know, we're enlightened about these things and that we do the right thing if we recycle and if we, you know, try to drive a car with fewer emissions. And you can kind of picture a car's tune of somebody driving down the freeway during that rainstorm last week and thinking that they're pretty environmentally conscious and complaining because of what has been done to do away with the wetlands, even while they complain about their 20-minute commute being disrupted. Some of this is development that obviously that we need and we need roads. We've built a whole society around paving roads for more than 100 years now and especially that took off with the interstate system. But our private developers required regulated by the same standards for mitigating wetlands as government agencies are. So if you build, let's say, a new jail complex and you, you know, pave a lot of property, is it the same? Does government have a higher burden for mitigation?Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
Yeah, the regulations are exactly the same for government entities as they are for private entities. So you're agency, the Michigan Department of Transportation. When you do a project that's going to impact wetlands potentially, you have to submit a permit application to our agency, just like any other developer would do, and we use the same criteria to ensure that the wetlands are protected as much as possible in those projects. And it's interesting to note that Michigan is in a unique role. Of all the states in the nation, there are only three Michigan, new Jersey and Florida that run their own wetlands program and we've been delegated authority by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to run our own program. And we run our own program that follows the standards and in some cases exceeds the standards that the federal government does. And that's really a benefit to Michigan because we think the best decisions to be made on individual wetland projects are better made by folks who live here than folks in Washington DC. And so we do run our own program and we are very invested in protecting those wetlands. And you're right, it is a balance. Michigan still has a lot of wetlands left and if you buy significant parcel of property and have wetlands on them, you should know going in that those wetlands are regulated, that there are certain things you can and can't do in wetlands, and if you're unaware of that you may be taken by surprise. We, as some people say, call balls and strikes. We have wetlands regulations in our own state, wetlands laws that we have to adhere to and we try to be as fair and consistent as possible in applying those standards both to businesses and to government entities and private individuals in a lot of cases. So the goal is to protect the wetlands we have. We lost them in great, in vast numbers prior to the 1970s when a lot of the Clean Water Act regulations went into effect and we began to realize not only how much we had destroyed but how important that was to Michigan. And you're seeing the result of that. We had been enlightened a few decades earlier. We might have less of a problem of flooding, especially in some of these urban areas, but the law is a mechanism by which we protect the wetland. When the laws came into place in the 70s we began to see wetlands much better protected in Michigan. And of course there are tweaks and various things we would like to see. We would like to see legislation to help the local communities be able to better access, funding and support for their own projects, for their own infrastructure projects, both green and gray infrastructure, the bioswales and the meadows that absorb the water and the pipes that carry the water, and the combined sewer basins and other things that hold the storm water temporarily so it can be treated and released when the storm event is over. And communities have a hard time getting funding for their day-to-day businesses much less when you say, hey, you should do this big infrastructure project and improve your protection of some of the natural resources that are helping your community. So there are some tweaks we'd like to see. But, yes, everyone is regulated the same under the same laws, be it government entities or private industry.Jeff Cranson:
I want to point out here that, in terms of transportation infrastructure, that Michigan and our decades-long funding crisis and the ability to keep up and maintain what we have is a kind of a separate issue from the fact that we really haven't built anything new. There aren't expansions going on. There aren't new freeways. Michigan hasn't had a new freeway in 20 years, since M-6 was built South of Grand Rapids. So despite that, despite the system being pretty much built out and put together in Southeast Michigan, there's still a heck of a lot of development that's been going on there and you've watched the wetlands, over a period of time, shrink. But I think what you're telling me now is that, with the permitting process such as it is, that there has to be pretty much one-to-one mitigation for everything that is built.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
Yeah, at least one to one. Generally it's even more than one to one to increase the safety factor. Each project is unique, so it's hard to speak in general terms about them. But if you are going to either destroy or impact a wetland, our staff goes out, does an analysis of what will be lost and then says okay, we will approve your permit under the following conditions, and those conditions may be protecting a wetland in the same watershed nearby or building a man-made wetland and then having a 20-year monitoring plan to make sure that it is doing its job and providing a nursery for small creatures and holding back storm water and providing those natural solutions. In many cases, the natural solution although it seems cumbersome and isn't something that the engineers are necessarily embracing right away, because it's new and they've kind of always done it the way they've done it building bigger and bigger pipes it's often more cost-effective if you can preserve a wetland that prevents you from having to build an expanded retention basin down the line or protects you from having increasing storm fluctuations over on the sewer pipe that you have to carry the water because you're preventing some of that water from getting into the man-made system in the first place. I'm losing track of what your original question was, Jeff, and that may be because we're of a certain age where both of us remember when the M-5 project over in Southwest Michigan was still on the drawing board.Jeff Cranson:
That was M-6, actually.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
M-6, yeah, you see, it's happening faster and faster, I guess.Jeff Cranson:
What I'm wondering is, when you talked about incentivizing developers, I mean, there's a permitting process, but are there things that you can do and your counterparts in other states in the EPA to incentivize? You mentioned bioswales, so the use of bioretention islands or bioswales, things that, like you said, both slow down the drainage but actually filter the water too a very natural way to make for cleaner water that makes its way to the tributaries. How do you incentivize that?Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
You know, at EGLE we give a lot of grants and low-interest loans to communities for this type of work. A lot of the grants and loans for water projects in the last few years have been directed toward drinking water and part of that is because a lot of the focus on drinking water both in Michigan and nationally you know the Flint water crisis and some other issues that are going on people are really zeroed in on the drinking water. But our Water Resources Division is embracing the drinking water part. But we're also making a push in the next few years for more funding, both state and federal funding for stormwater infrastructure. And I think that it's maybe sad to say, but these disasters, you know if there's a silver lining, they sometimes raise awareness of the infrastructure needs of communities and maybe we'll get some the ball rolling and the political arena to get some more funding that way. But in the funding that we do get, we do distribute. We've seen more of an emphasis on green infrastructure. In fact we have certain grants that are designed only for green infrastructure and you know, and building that capacity, you know the laws that we're enforcing, the work that we do with the permit applicants. We, I think we process between 4,000 and 6,000 permits for wetlands every year and you know each one of those our staff goes out, looks at the property and often the developers and the engineers who are sort of fixated on, you know, getting the best returns for an investment, won't be looking at it the same way we do. So a lot of times our staff will go out and say you know, if you rearrange this housing development to cluster these houses over here and avoid this wetland impact, you know you would not only not have to do so much mitigation, which would be expensive and save you some money. The arrangement of the houses would be nicer and more aesthetically pleasing. And a lot of times we're able to work with developers to avoid impacts that they initially thought they couldn't avoid. So our staff does a lot of that. And there are incentives for green you know green infrastructure and hopefully we'll be able to leverage some more support for communities from Michigan, communities from the federal and state governments and provide, you know, help, work with the legislature to provide more mechanisms by which they can have an easier path to applying for and getting funding for these vital improvements, because you know there are a lot of a lot of communities in the state that are in dire financial straits. They're having trouble supporting their day to day operations. I was up a month or two ago up in Cheboygan and they recently completed a $20 million basically new water plant to process their wastewater and they were replacing 1970s era technology and they showed us the old technology and it was almost literally held together with bailing wire and duct tape and it was really inefficient and really expensive to operate. They were getting constant violation notices from us and they actually said to us you know what we welcome those violation notices because most people would cringe at them, but we can take them to our city council, we can take them to our state legislators and say, look, this is a huge problem. You can see we're getting violation notices. You know we're getting out of bed in the middle of the night to go fix problems that happen and increasing staff time and maintenance and consultants who have to come in and figure out how to, you know, get the system running. You know it's expensive and burdensome and tiresome and they are so thrilled with our new plant. You know that came from part federal and state money that you know it's great to see communities get uplifted like that. You know Cheboygan has a lot going on downtown trying to revitalize itself. And with the new wastewater plant, you know that's. That's one thing that they've invested in that will pay off in generations down the road.Jeff Cranson:
We will continue the conversation right after a quick break.MDOT Message:
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Talk about, I guess related to this, is what was done before. You had the robust permitting system and regulations that we do now. A lot of what we're talking about in Southeast Michigan predated this these modern regulations, and there's nothing you can do to go back on that. I know this is there's no simple answer here, but we're going to have more of these rain events where we get three to five inches of rain, you know, within a 24 hour period, or even fewer hours, and we're going to have the same thing happen again. And you know people will say, well, they need to have generators for all those pumps, both in the tunnels at Metro Airport and for the freeways at I-275 and I-994 nearby, and everything was working. It wouldn't matter if the pumps were going at full capacity or not. There's no place for the water to go in that short amount of time.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
In the near term the fixes to the systems that address wastewater and help keep streets from flooding and basements from backing up. There's going to be no quick fix for that. This is a long term vision and we have now dug in and have started the process of rebuilding. The infrastructure was substandard, without the impacts of climate change, and with the impacts of climate change which we're seeing now, we need to address the future, and so the bad news is there's no short term fix for the flooding problems. We will have to do some adaptation strategies make sure that people have backflow preventers in their basements, make sure that we have people protected while we're improving the infrastructure that protects them. One of the things we're looking at and we just put out our water resources division put at a their own climate strategy that kind of dovetails with the Michigan Healthy Climate Plan, which, of course, is mostly just a climate change in the long term and mitigation of climate change, but eventually we'll also incorporate adaptation and what we can do to protect people from the effects of climate change. That we can't stop at this point. So we'll be looking to incorporate adaptation into the my healthy climate plan, but underneath and kind of in tandem with the climate plan that we actually have out for public comment now is the water resources divisions climate strategy, and that lists a lot of the infrastructure projects that are going on, a lot of the things that we hope to see in terms of making more robust systems, making bigger retention basins that can capture more rainfall, investing in more green infrastructure so that we don't have to invest in the pipes and the concrete systems as much in that strategy as a proposal to have a 10% safety factor added onto anything that collects water. If you run a big factory farm and you have a sewage lagoon that takes the waste products from your animals, we're going to be asking that meet the new design standards with the latest know up projections for rainfall amounts, and we're working on an old one. We're moving to the new one now that incorporates some of the climate change impacts that are expected, not only meeting those standards, but adding 10% on the capacity, with the realization in the future they're definitely going to need that, and so that kind of strategy is one of the ways that we're addressing the situation. But, yeah, it's not going to be a quick fix. We have decades, if not centuries, of destruction of these wetlands, and paving essentially was a soggy Detroit back when it was founded and putting all this impervious pavement on it, and we cannot reverse decades or centuries of destruction of these wetlands in a few short years. So it's a long-term strategy, but it's really heartening to see the mindset of the public changing from the historic back in the day when the swamps were the enemy and the goal was to drain that water as fast as possible, as quick as possible anywhere but on the property, so that you could farm the field or build the housing development, and there was really no thought given to where that water was going to end up and what was going to happen when that land could no longer manage the water that fell on it. So I think the mindset is different and I'm optimistic that we can get to a long-term solution with some momentum. But yeah, it won't be a quick fix, jeff.Jeff Cranson:
Well, you raised a good point, though for historical context. Long before anybody was paving anything, farmers, settlers, homesteaders were trying to figure out ways to, in some cases, drain and some cases burn off wetlands and try to eliminate what was there and turn it into fertile fire ground, which they often did all over the country. Yeah, that's good historic context too. Anything else you want to add?Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
I just got a story that came to mind that when I was in my 20s, long ago, I lived in Grandville, south River, Grand Rapids, and there was a field, an undeveloped field, that I used to walk my dog in. It was beautiful, it had wildflowers and it was swampy and it had trees growing in it and little paths that people had gone through it. I knew it was private property, but it wasn't posted and there was nothing going on there. I hadn't been there for a while and I came back it had been completely bulldozed. They had taken all the water that was sitting in low-lying areas and built a big pond, a retention pond that was supposed to hold the water, and they were building a housing development around it. I was like, wow, I had just learned about wetlands through the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and I thought this seems illegal to me. So I filed a complaint with the then DEQ, which is the agency I work for now. A few weeks later I got back a letter saying that thanks for your concern, but this wasn't officially a wetland and had information about soil types and gradients that I didn't understand and I shrugged my shoulders and thought, well, they're the experts and they must know. Unfortunately, that was under an era of a governor and a director who were not great environmentalists, and I have my suspicions that that was a wetland, and those were confirmed about 10 years later. My wife went back after we had moved away and had dinner with friends and one of the friends said oh, we ran across her husband's name the other day and she said how? And she said well, I live around this pond that was developed and all of our basements flood and we had to have a class action suit against the developer. And in the discovery process they'd gone through the DEQ files and found my complaint. And that was sort of an aha moment for me. It was like, oh, it seemed to me like they shouldn't have destroyed that natural area, and since they did and thought they could manage the water in a man-made pond, it didn't work out well for them and so in that case, an ounce of prevention would have been worth a pound of cure. If they had developed that a different way or left it undeveloped, I think it could have protected all those homes and homeowners and actually having to be tied up in litigation for years.Jeff Cranson:
That's a cool story, and there's definitely some vindication there. I should point out, though, this all started with you and your dog trespassing.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
Yeah, I assume the statute of limitations has run out on that, which is the only reason I mentioned it.Jeff Cranson:
Let's hope so. Let's hope so. You thanks as always really appreciate your time and the way you synthesize these things and break it down, and hopefully more and more people will start to think about this, because it's gonna be with us for a while and there's gonna be more of these flooding events and we're not gonna build our way out of it anytime soon.Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.:
I agree, Jeff. Thanks for having me. I love to talk about it and it's something we it's top of mind every day we go to work is how to protect our natural resources, not only for the things they do for the environment but, even more importantly, for the protection they provide for the health of people in Michigan.Jeff Cranson:
Very well said. I'd like to thank you once more for tuning in to Talking Michigan Transportation. You can find show notes and more on Apple podcasts or Buzzsprout. I also want to acknowledge the talents of people who help make this a reality each week, starting with Randy Debler, who skillfully edits the audio, Jesse Ball, who proofs the content, Courtney Bates, who posts the podcast of various platforms, and Jacke Salinas, who transcribes the audio to make it accessible to all.