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Climate Change Meets Green Infrastructure: Deploying New Stormwater Infrastructure Techniques Against Flooding and Water Quality Threats in the Chesapeake Watershed

Monday, August 28, 2017
Cynthia R. Harris

Cynthia R. Harris

Staff Attorney; Director of Tribal Programs; Deputy Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

Home to nearly 18 million people, the Chesapeake Bay region is expected to be hit hard by climate change-driven increases in sea level, flooding, and precipitation. Sea level is already rising in the region at a rate of 3.4 mm per year—double the worldwide average—negatively impacting peoples livelihoods, swallowing up land, damaging property, and threatening military readiness. Further inland, heavy rains will lead to more intense flooding, as seen last summer in Ellicott City, Maryland. Increased precipitation also means more polluted runoff will be carried into the Bay, which is already overwhelmed with excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

A street in Annapolis, Maryland flooded after heavy rainfall in 2010 (Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program)

In the face of climate change-driven flooding and degraded water quality, local governments can take the innovative approach of managing these growing stormwater challenges through the use of “green infrastructure.”

In Green Infrastructure for Chesapeake Stormwater Management: Legal Tools for Climate Resilient Siting, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) reviews the most promising pathways government officials and other stakeholders can take within existing state legal framework. The report focuses on Maryland and Virginia, which is home to almost 70% of the Chesapeake watershed’s population.

ELI recommends specific actions that legislative and regulatory bodies can take to modify the current stormwater management regime to account for climate change impacts on stormwater management and water quality—and ultimately be better prepared to meet the challenges posed by a changing client. Rather than resorting to retreat, or relying on ineffective conventional stormwater strategies, local officials can demonstrate innovative new approaches to resiliency—moving away from conventional stormwater strategies, which rely on gutters and pipes, to focus instead on “environmental site design” (ESD), a form of green infrastructure.

Many localities are turning to these practices, which conserve or mimic green spaces and natural processes to retain and infiltrate stormwater where it is generated. ESD operates on the neighborhood level, with examples including permeable pavement, reinforced turf, submerged gravel wetlands, landscape infiltration and berms, dry wells, micro-bioretention, green roofs, bio-swales, and enhanced filters.

While a number of localities in Maryland and Virginia have prepared or initiated climate resiliency and adaptation plans, no locality is systematically incorporating climate change resiliency considerations when siting ESDs for stormwater management—despite ESD being an area in which Chesapeake communities have historically innovated.

A shoreline in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, was designed to withstand erosion from sea-level rise (Photo: Will Parson / Chesapeake Bay Program)

One of the report’s key findings is that state and local governments can pursue the development of strong, science-based ESD guidelines under existing legal and policy structures. State zoning power governing land use offers the most promising pathway for localities to establish ESD siting guidelines. Through this broad power, localities can establish overlay zones based on predicted climate change impact. This allows officials to comprehensively address stormwater management as part of an overall watershed management plan, and incorporate both land use and stormwater management into their climate resiliency strategies.

Several additional options are available and require changes in laws and regulations. State officials can make minor adjustments to the existing law and policy framework that would more clearly assert, and extend, state and local authority to enact climate change-based ESD siting policies. State officials can also draft new legislation and develop a uniform set of criteria to serve as a baseline standard for localities to further refine.

The Chesapeake region stands in a position to take national leadership on the issue of climate change impacts to our vulnerable coastal communities. To learn more, access the report at https://www.eli.org/research-report/green-infrastructure-chesapeake-stormwater-management-legal-tools-climate-resilient-siting.


All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.