All together now: How asset management, stormwater, and planning can help build community resiliency
As sea levels rise on the North Carolina coast and major storms get more frequent and intense with each passing year, a focus on community resiliency and planning for potential emergencies is paramount. At WithersRavenel, many of our disciplines are working together to help communities address pressing issues in the present while striving to build greater resiliency to prepare not only for hurricanes and large weather events, but also localized flooding events.
From stormwater to planning to funding and asset management, a community needs to consider many factors when targeting resiliency and identifying ways to protect and smartly manage infrastructure. Resiliency may not be sexy—preventing things from happening or mitigating their effects doesn’t often get on the news—but it can be vital.
Dori Sabeh, PE, GISP, is WithersRavenel’s Director of Stormwater in our Raleigh office. He has experience working with communities on infrastructure and master planning projects throughout the state. Dori says sometimes communities can be reluctant to invest in a stormwater master plan; they’d rather spend money on a project that provides tangible infrastructure.
“The main benefit from a master plan is knowing your hazards and where you need to make improvements,” Dori said. “You can then react ahead of time.” Your reaction may be immediately before a storm event: a master plan can help identify areas most likely to flood, so you know who needs to evacuate. Your reaction could also be more long-term and aim to increase resiliency: a master plan can identify where an improvement or new infrastructure is needed to prevent or mitigate flooding.
And, importantly, a master plan document can provide community funding on two levels. First, there are funding programs which will cover part or all the cost of a stormwater master plan for many communities. Second, a master plan which specifically identifies areas in critical need of improvement can then be used to secure funding for those projects.
“A master plan can determine that what you think is a flooding problem for a small area can be bigger than what you have seen in the past,” Dori said. “So rather than doing those band-aid repairs, with a master plan you have more evidence of your current stormwater situation, and a better chance of funding a project that covers the entire area that needs to be worked on, providing a sustainable solution for the community.”
Building that stormwater resiliency is vital, with each year seemingly bringing larger storms. But even a smaller storm can bring repeated localized flooding, which can be identified, and eventually remedied, by starting with a stormwater master plan.
Planning for the future
Jay McLeod, AICP, is WithersRavenel’s Director of Community Planning. While Jay’s experience crisscrosses the state, he has done a significant amount of work with coastal communities on land use and CAMA plans, where resiliency and flood awareness are key factors. One way that communities can boost resiliency is clustering growth away from high-hazard areas—places that are identified as at-risk from rising sea levels or other factors.
“If you can identify the places with the greatest flood risk, maybe it’s not a smart place to be putting in public infrastructure,” Jay said. “That can lead to higher maintenance and operating costs. It’s also probably not a good place to put high-density development, too, since you not only have more people and more property in harm’s way potentially, but also you have EMS personnel that have to risk their lives to go into these areas more frequently than they would if we had placed the development on higher ground.”
The data from the North Carolina Emergency Management Department that forecasts sea level rise is valuable for resiliency and risk management planning purposes. While the data does not bind local North Carolina governments to firm limitations, it does provide information to discuss and consider when crafting local plans and ordinances to define future development parameters. That information is especially important as communities try to balance property rights, shoreline vulnerability, habitat loss, increasingly powerful storms, and other factors.
As flooding becomes a more regular part of people’s lives, nuisance flooding is getting more attention as well. Areas in communities that suffer repeated flooding, even with more regular storms, are often addressed by planners, along with stormwater engineers and funding teams. Jay and WithersRavenel have worked with coastal municipalities and counties on a variety of projects through the state’s Resilient Coastal Communities Program (RCCP). This program is focused on nature-based design solutions to flooding, and it presents one of many funding opportunities for communities to address resiliency.
Asset Management and Funding
Brandon Inscore is WithersRavenel’s Practice Area Lead for Funding and Asset Management. From the perspective of asset management and boosting local resiliency, there are two key factors at play: first, having accurate data and an asset inventory so that you can understand the totality of your infrastructure and the condition of individual assets. The second factor is determining what level of asset management planning works best for your community and structuring that plan to maximize resources and efficiency.
Thankfully, there are funding options for communities to manage their assets. Grants are available for Asset Inventory and Assessment (AIA) for water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure. These programs can be valuable for building greater community resiliency. Additionally, there are other funding opportunities that can arise out of data or targeted improvements identified through AIA projects or other initiatives.
Brandon recognizes that, when it comes to community infrastructure, the focus is often on the project at hand: building or rehabilitating a water line, constructing a stormwater control measure. But asset management over the total lifecycle of a community’s infrastructure can pay great financial dividends—especially when thinking about resiliency.
“You can’t build an asset and then just walk away from it after 50 years,” Brandon said. “Things change over time: growth in the community, regulatory change, increased risk of flooding. And so by actively managing not just a plan but a program around asset management, you’re constantly looking at those things because we all know priorities are going to shift.”
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