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The fight against flooding: How the median on your street can keep your basement from flooding

Posted at 4:04 PM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-20 18:29:43-04

(WXYZ) — How can we fight back against the flooding that’s hammered metro Detroit these last few months?

One of the ways to slow the water flow is with something called “green stormwater infrastructure.”

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When more than six inches of rain fell in a few hours on June 25-26, 2021, freeways flooded and basements filled with water and sewage, leaving neighborhoods piled with debris.
Early state figures show the flooding cost homeowners at least $140 million, and the damages are still being tallied.

“It was very devastating,” said Barb Matney, President of the Warrendale Community Organization.

Matney says after suffering through flood damage in the 2014 storms, she started making major changes in her neighborhood on Detroit’s west side.

“It’s going to take all of us working together and doing the right thing so we can help the environment,” said Matney.

As President of the Warrendale Community Organization, Matney is passionate about her community. That’s why she helped create the “In Memory Of Community Garden,” and a rain garden across the street at the Minock-Whitlock park.

All of the green space absorbs the storm water and reduces flooding.

“What we’ve done is put gutters on our pavilion, so all the water that comes off the pavilion goes down underground and actually feeds into a tube and actually feeds into a rain garden,” said Matney.

Matney says during storms this summer, her Project Green Light cameras caught the rain garden in action.

“It actually filled up and actually held water in this space almost half way to the pavilion, and within 48 hours it was down like what you would see now,” said Matney.

Without the garden, Matney says the water would have flowed down the street and possibly into basements.

Matney and her Warrendale neighbors also benefit from the flood-fighting efforts of 4 bio-retention gardens. They were installed back in 2015 as part of a partnership with the University of Michigan and Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).

“How do you change vacant land, and how do you get some super-efficient ways to clean storm water and store it? And this was our experiment,” said Joan Nassauer, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Nassauer says their team used vacant lots to install Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI.) The bioretention gardens are much deeper than rain gardens. They’re filled with permeable materials and have plants on top to absorb the water.

“It was designed to have a capacity of 300,000 gallons,” said Nassauer. “Our tests over about a year and a half showed it worked extremely well.”

Nassauer says their study showed that the bioretention gardens not only improved flooding -- residents loved them.

“We were stunned at how much people felt they benefitted,” said Nassauer.

DWSD built on that success with an $8.6 million GSI investment in the west side Aviation neighborhood.

DWSD Deputy Director Palencia Mobley says they turned the medians on Oakman Boulevard into bioretention gardens, and they now manage 37 million gallons of stormwater each year.

“There’s some storage beneath them. When the plants have soaked up all they can soak up, then what’s left is bled back into the combined sewer system,” said Mobley.

Mobley says GSI helps during rain storms, but no system is designed to handle the type of downpours Detroit got this summer. That means even bigger investments are needed for the future.

“For residents and businesses and people in general, they have to understand these projects take time, but that we are all working to figure out the best way to combat climate change,” said Mobley.

“Where is the world going to be for our grandchildren,” said Matney. “If we don’t start doing something about it now, I don’t know where we’ll end up being in 20 or 25 years.”

DWSD has a major $30 million GSI project planned for the Far West neighborhood, where water will be stored in Rouge Park. Construction is set to begin early next year.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com