Suburbia’s Silent Storm Water Crisis

What happens when your storm water system fails. Photo credit: Associated Press.

What happens when your storm water system fails. Photo credit: Associated Press.

America’s older suburbs may face an infrastructure crisis from the last place they expect — aging storm water management systems.

In a presentation at the annual LOCUS conference in Washington, D.C., this morning, Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” listed a number of factors driving the re-development of America’s suburbs. They include the usual suspects such as energy-efficiency, emancipation from auto dependency and housing affordability as well as some less commonly recognized trends such as the aging of the population and public health. But the one that took me surprise was water.

“Water is the next oil,” said Dunham-Jones, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor. By that, I understood her to mean that clean water is the next object of resource scarcity, especially in western communities where much of the waste water is, well… wasted.

Water issues have dogged America’s older cities where waste-water and storm-water infrastructure built a century ago first began to decay. But the problems are spreading to suburban jurisdictions developed since World War II, Dunham-Jones said. The early suburbs were built with little thought to water issues. Many developments were built in flood plains or wetlands. Streams were funneled through storm culverts. Engineered, hard-infrastructure solutions that may have been adequate back then have proven less so as development spread and watersheds were paved over with impermeable surfaces, she explained.

Add to that the fact that some older pipes and culverts are crumbling and that warmer climate is associated with  more extreme weather events, and the suburbs could have a time bomb on their hands — one they don’t even hear ticking.


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Editor James A. Bacon publishes the blog with financial support from Smart Growth America. A life-long journalist, Jim was publisher & editor-in-chief of Virginia Business magazine before launching Bacon’s Rebellion, a blog dedicated to building more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities in Virginia. He is the author of “Boomergeddon: How Runaway Deficits Will Bankrupt the Country and Ruin Retirement for Aging Baby Boomers — and What You Can Do About It.”

One thought on “Suburbia’s Silent Storm Water Crisis

  1. This is a serious problem in New Jersey, made worse by municipalities’ struggle to assemble the financial resources necessary to address it. Our organization, New Jersey Future, is partnering with a broad range of stakeholders to address the issue. Unless we do, we put residents’ health at risk and the state’s economic health in jeopardy.

    We just released our “agenda for change,” which outlines the steps that need to be taken in order to transform the state’s water infrastructure:

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