When It Rains It Pours - From the Mayor Gregory J. Oravec
t hasn’t been for forty days and forty nights, but parts of our community did get almost a foot of rain in early October; and it’s pouring right now as a write this column two weeks later! That’s a lot of water in a short period of time, especially after an already wet wet-season in a flat state where much of the development sits on former wetlands. Luckily, we didn’t see the same type of flooding in PSL proper that our neighbors to the north and south did (Yes, Walton Road, which is owned and maintained by St. Lucie County but located in the City is still closed at the time of this writing. The County reports that they are doing their best to get it back open); but, we have had and still have standing water in some swales across our City. This can be off-putting to many residents, especially our transplants from places much higher than sea level or from hometowns with curbs, sidewalks and underground drainage everywhere; and to this point, swales/standing water is the number one citizen complaint that we receive at City Hall, even in times of normal precipitation.
Consequently, after a super soaker event, it might be debatable as to whether the swales are more flooded with rain water or the 1PSL hotline (cityofpsl.com/1PSL; 772-871-1775) is more flooded with calls for service; but, we’re certainly not complaining at City Hall. Quite to the contrary, we couldn’t be happier about hearing from our residents. That’s exactly what the 1PSL hotline and app are there for, and we want and need citizen feedback to provide the best service possible. With this goal in mind, I wanted to use our recent rain events and the citizen feedback as an opportunity to discuss some fundamental aspects of our stormwater management system and current level of service.
To fully explore this topic, I would really like to start with a refresher or primer (as the case may be) on the water cycle and Florida’s environmental geology, but that would turn this column into a multipage article. Accordingly, let me offer some Cliff Notes and then hit some highlights about our stormwater management system.
Like much of Florida, PSL is relatively flat, wet and full of wetlands, and it was even more full of wetlands before people started systematically paving over them. This dynamic actually forces more stormwater runoff onto areas that aren’t naturally adapted to handle it and the stormwater system is only as good as the weakest link (in fact, things tend to flood upstream of the weakest link).
The City’s original master developer, the General Development Corporation (GDC), cleared and platted 80 square miles of what was previously Florida wilderness and ranchland into quarter acre single family lots, installing a stormwater system that largely consisted of low-cost ditches and swales to keep the lots dry enough to build on. A small amount of our City’s stormwater flows to the Savannas, but the great majority finds its way, one way or another, to the St. Lucie River.
In our part of Florida, in heavy rains, the roadways are designed to store (hold) water. It’s better that the roads flood than our homes and businesses.
We often think of a stormwater system in terms of flood prevention, but it is much more than that. In addition to flood prevention, a stormwater system impacts water quality, surrounding ecosystems, aquifer recharge, drinking water, irrigation, agriculture, water-based businesses, property values and more. The water quality crisis in the St. Lucie River is a great illustration of this point. The pollution we are fighting so hard against is largely attributable to too much, too polluted stormwater runoff entering the River from all the surrounding lands and through Lake O, as in the regional stormwater management system. When we work to displace water in our yards as fast as possible, please remember that, in the absence of attenuating water bodies and treatment, an unintended effect will be to deliver more pollution to the receiving water body (i.e. the St. Lucie River) faster.
As it turns out, back in the day, City Hall used to get a lot more complaints about swales and the stormwater system; but, thanks to the hard work of citizens, City Councils, staff members and engineers and the support of valued partners at the Florida Legislature, South Florida Water Management District, FL Department of Environmental Protection, US Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and others, starting in the 1990’s, the City began a journey to upgrade and retrofit the legacy GDC stormwater system to not only address the drainage complaints but also all those other aspects of a proper stormwater system, especially water quality. Unfortunately, retrofitting a stormwater system in a community now over 120 square miles is not easy, fast or cheap. Through the City’s stormwater utility, our community annually spends millions of dollars to maintain the existing system and millions more on capital projects to improve it. Notable improvements since the 1990’s include swale liners and the Eastern Watershed Improvement Project (EWIP).
Like retrofitting the City with water and sewer, sidewalks, improved roads and other important infrastructure, this process to improve our stormwater system will take time, money and your input.
Your assistance with the maintenance of the swale system is vital to the operation of the City’s drainage system. It helps us make the most of the system we have today, as we work hard, smart and together on building a much improved system of tomorrow. If you want to learn more about how you can help maintain your swale and culverts, please visit www.cityofpsl.com/swale. If the City Council or I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us at 772-871-5159.