The peril of paving

June 27, 2006

Get a bad case of eye glaze when Save-the-Bay types start dropping terms such as "impervious surface," "stormwater runoff" or (zzzzzz) "woody vegetation"?

Well, wake up, Maryland. Mother Nature is now demonstrating why it is so vital not only to the Chesapeake Bay but to life in general and the local economy in particular to restore and keep intact the region's ability to absorb swift, sudden downpours.

Daily routine has been wildly disrupted as roads washed out, basements flooded, and creeks and rivers overflowed their banks. Cars were reported to be floating in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Seaford, Del., while rail service was canceled in Washington, which partially returned to its roots as a swamp.

Weather forecasters predict more chaos to come as the storm front moves west through the mountains, where communities in the hollows are particularly vulnerable.

There's no surprise in any of this. Rain comes fast, rain comes slow; it doesn't come for awhile and then it comes all at once. Global warming has raised the sea level, and is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of storms over the next three decades or so. But the major contributing factor to this sudden waterworld is that much of the region's natural stormwater defense system has been chopped down and paved over.

Trees catch rainwater, absorbing some and retaining the rest until it evaporates. Fields covered with vegetation also absorb stormwater, slowing it down and sending some to underground aquifers. Streams also catch and slow rainwater unless they have been deeply eroded - as many in this region are.

As long as people live and work here, stormwater damage can never be completely eliminated. But it can be reduced with smarter techniques applied to new development and if property owners, businesses and governments commit to repairing eroded streams and damaged wetlands within their control.

The cost of doing the job right could be huge, but almost certainly not as much as failing to do it - allowing storms to wreak havoc on homes and cars and work schedules.

Everyone can help a little. Forget that backyard patio; plant some bushes instead. Mother Nature just loves woody vegetation.

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