When it Rains ...

Communities work together to stem the stream of stormwater

December 2, 2019 Cranberry Local News


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Rain doesn't stop at municipal boundaries.

In southwest Butler County, more than a half-dozen local governments that share that belief now meet to discuss what they can do together to mitigate the flooding that has in recent years caused damage to countless homes, businesses and lives.

Adams, Cranberry, Jackson and Lancaster townships as well as Evans City, Harmony and Zelienople have now met twice to discuss the causes of, and possible solutions for, the widespread flooding that has made a resurgence.

The meetings stem from a countywide Oct. 16 meeting of municipalities in the Connoquenessing Watershed in Butler Township that was led by Mark Gordon, the county chief of economic development and planning.

“After that meeting, there were four or five of us who said, 'You know, we need to see what we can do, locally, as neighbors,'” Don Pepe, Zelienople borough manager, said.

At the Butler Township meeting, the municipalities realized they had not only a common interest in solving the problem, but also a widespread desire to address it.

“There seems to be a common will amongst the municipalities to do something and to move forward,” Chris Rearick, Jackson Township manager, said.

In a sense, Gordon said, the southern communities meeting was the intended result of the larger gathering.

“The intent was bringing the watershed communities together, such that they could work with the county and cooperate to determine ways that we might mitigate and/or minimize the occurrences of flooding,” he said.

Funding

By forming this group, Gordon said, the towns have taken a step toward addressing the flooding issue.

“Any one municipality by themselves, these initiatives could be extremely burdensome from a cost perspective, and they may find themselves very limited in what analysis they might be able to do in generating solutions,” he said. “The better approach might be to have a cooperative agreement across the watershed communities and work on the issue cooperatively.”

A cooperative agreement could manifest itself in a regional authority — a “lofty goal” that, should it happen, would be “pretty far off,” Cranberry Township Manager Jerry Andree said. Authorities generally have greater leeway in raising funds, applying for grants and loans and spending money than municipal governments.

Gordon said another possible way to raise funds to offset the cost of stormwater mitigation would be to adapt Cranberry's model for its stormwater management fee, which charges property owners a monthly fee based on the amount of impervious surface on their property.

“I think that is a tool that is a workable solution,” he said.

Should a fee take hold, whether issued by an authority or individual governments, some representatives hope it will be applied fairly.

“I just want to see that we're not being charged the same as everyone else,” Harmony Mayor Cathy Rape said. “Hopefully, it'll go on population because we are small — if it goes that way.”

Even then, the municipalities would be under no obligation to join an authority or impose stormwater fees or taxes.

“Nothing that is being discussed would be forced upon anyone,” said Benjamin Kramer, Lancaster Township manager. “We're trying to work collaboratively, just to show others and the county what these meetings can do.”

Grants, in this case, are not going to be the solution for which municipalities have hoped, Gordon said. Instead, municipalities, should they wish to take steps to curtail flooding, would need to invest their own money or borrow some. From the county's infrastructure bank, for example, towns could take subsidized loans.

“We're in this predicament today because everybody sat around and waited for grants,” he added. “This is going to require investment — investment by the municipalities in terms of time and resources and this is going to require investment by the county.”

Rearick agreed the individual towns would have to devote their own funds and efforts to be a serious endeavor.

“If we're going to ask anything of the county, we need to put some skin in the game, and we need to give them a sense of what we see as our needs,” he said.

Causes and solutions

To give the county a sense of the area's needs, the meetings have focused on how to examine the causes of flooding and why it has caused so much damage. That's the next step.

“We're still really, really early because we don't have any hard data,” Pepe said.

Pepe said he thinks no municipality is shirking its responsibilities to control stormwater, but questions if the legal requirements are enough to prevent flooding.

“Nobody's blaming anybody in terms of what's happening,” Pepe said. “But we're all asking ourselves, 'Are we doing enough?'”

Some areas that hope to enter the conversation wonder if the state's stormwater law, Act 167, requires enough from each town. Ron Flatt, chairman of the Center Township board of supervisors, said they are looking at tightening their own ordinance that enforces Act 167.

In other places, flooding is a natural part of life due to the topography of the region. Harmony, for example, is in a low-lying area. But that doesn't mean the group won't examine ways to mitigate damage to the borough, Rearick said.

Once problems are identified, the group will determine how best to address them.

Zelienople provides an example of an individual municipality doing such a study. Earlier this year, it examined which issues there were within the borough and how to address them. The end result was a 36-page document listing obstructions to water flow and a 19-point list of ways to correct them.

The 19 ways Zelienople has identified to mitigate flooding are characteristic of the manifold ways the issue will need to be addressed, Gordon said.

“Some places, it could be as simple as clear spaces to allow water to move toward and allow it to easily dissipate. Others might be more restricted release rates into areas of the watershed,” he said. “There's no one particular item that is really noteworthy. It will be a combination of numerous items and numerous initiatives.”

Next steps

Numerous municipalities are in the Connoquenessing Watershed, but only seven are in this group.

“Everyone understands flooding is a regional problem,” Andree said. “We're trying to keep the group manageable and build upon success.”

Expanding the group to include communities upstream — such as Center and Oakland townships — or those that have tributaries to the Connoquenessing is part of the plan for the future.

Gordon said the topography of the county — higher in the north and lower in the south — dictates that northern communities join the southern in addressing the issue.

“Ultimately, they're going to have to,” he said. “You're not going to rewrite the laws of gravity. What occurs up in the northern tier influences what happens in the southern tier.”

Flatt said Center has some of its own issues to address — such as the ongoing runoff situation at the Abie Abraham VA Health Care Center — before joining discussions, but wants to be involved in the future.

“We would be interested in talking to the entire watershed to see what, if anything, we'd be able to do to make sure our neighbors downstream are not harmed,” he said.

With the progress communities in the watershed hope to make, it will still take some time, Gordon said. Studies will have to be conducted, plans for the future must be made, and ways to fund those plans have to be found. Even then, he added, discussing these issues shows they're moving forward.

“It will be an arduous process and, obviously, it's well worth it,” he said. “All you have to do is go see some of those communities that are stricken with the floodwater sometimes, and your heart has to go out to those folks. It can be devastating.”

Eagle staff writer Tanner Cole contributed to this story.

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Alex Weidenhof

Alex Weidenhof