August 23, 2022
… putting a quart in a pint pot
Last week, drains became a hot button issue on both coasts. In Clarendon, residents and officials were still looking for someone or something to blame for an estimated $500 million in flood damage. In Falmouth, the mayor needed $8.5 million to do something about the “filthy” appearance of the town. In both cases, the local drains are getting most of the blame.
There was a suggestion that the drains in the flooded areas of Clarendon were blocked. In fact they had been recently cleaned, though storm debris did cause some problems. There was also a suggestion that a new shopping mall might be responsible for dumping floodwater into Mineral Heights.
The mall probably did contribute to the Clarendon problems. Paved parking lots and concrete buildings don’t let rain soak in. Generally, developers aren’t required to reduce this runoff. Their drainage plans do need to show that storm water won’t pool up on the property or run directly into the neighbours’ yard. If the runoff is delivered to an approved “harmless” disposal area, like a municipal drain, that’s generally good enough.
The developer (Sagicor) insisted that the company’s drainage plans for the mall had been approved by both NEPA and the Parish Council, after close inspection and several consultations. In fact, a company spokesman noted that Sagicor went beyond its legal obligation and cleaned the entire nearby parish council drainage system “as we found it was not cleaned for a number of years. … (We) will be upgrading the entire drainage network along the parish council road as stakeholders in the community”.
This time everybody guessed wrong. There was simply too much water for the available drainage to handle. Streambeds, gullies, ditches and channels overflowed, roads became rivers, and water that pooled in the low spots had nowhere to escape.
Last month, on the other coast, the Prime Minister had some harsh words for Falmouth. “I am hearing too many complaints from the cruise shipping sector of dissatisfaction that the place isn’t ready, and … I am going to take a personal interest in ensuring that it is corrected.” Chairman of the Trelawny Municipal Corporation Colin Gager admitted “… the town is dirty, everybody knows that.” A number of clogged drains are contributing to “the filthiness of Falmouth”.
At the heart of the problem is a main channel that should carry much of the town’s waste water into the swampland near Martha Brae. However, only about a quarter of its length is working. Most of the rest “has tall trees and morass growing in it so the water doesn’t get to run down.” Gager needs $8.5 million immediately to clean the drains and about $2 million monthly to maintain them.
It’s good to see Sagicor clearing drains in Mineral Heights and Port Authority cleaning pedestrian areas in Falmouth. The work needs to be done, and it’s reasonable for those who profit directly from a safe, healthy environment to contribute directly to achieving it. Sadly, that doesn’t solve the fundamental drain problem.
The Clarendon flood is a warning sign of what’s likely to become a frequent event. Decades of bad watershed management – stripping fields and hillsides of their grass and trees, draining and dumping up flood plains and wetlands, and putting pavement and buildings in their places – have greatly increased the amount of storm water that pours into coastal areas every time it rains. The existing drainage systems, even running wide open, often can’t handle the amount of water rushing into them. Eventually it all gets into the sea, carrying a load of dirt and garbage.
Meeting 21st century climate challenges with 20th century development policies and 19th century drainage systems won’t work very well for very long. The sustainable solution isn’t bigger drains, it’s less runoff. That means preserving, restoring and increasing the areas where rainfall can slow down and soak in. It also means finding ways to catch and store more rain for future use – and then making rainwater harvesting a required part of the building code.