Forestry | Land use | Ecotrope

Flooded Streets: A Downside Of Urban Trees?

Ecotrope | Nov. 19, 2012 8:52 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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The City of Portland's Bureau of Transportation recommends people help reduce street flooding by clearing the storm water grates of debris. Paul Axelrod shrunk this lake at SE 37th & Belmont down to a puddle in his effort to prevent his basement from flooding like it did in May.

The City of Portland's Bureau of Transportation recommends people help reduce street flooding by clearing the storm water grates of debris. Paul Axelrod shrunk this lake at SE 37th & Belmont down to a puddle in his effort to prevent his basement from flooding like it did in May.

I spotted Ryan Sharp and Paul Axelrod walking up SE Belmont, stooped and peering into a river of water running along the curb in the other direction. Axelrod had a rake in his hand that he periodically dropped into the river of water to check for storm drains.

The two stopped on opposite sides of SE 37th, where a lake of storm water had claimed the intersection. Sharp plunged his hands into several inches of water and pulled out clumps of browning leaves.The pool of water around him shrank as the storm drain sucked it underground.

“We both have basements down the street that we don’t want to flood,” said Sharp. “There’s a river of water running from here all the way down there. And it’s all because these drains are clogged up.”

There are 58,000 storm drains in Portland, and as rain continues to pour on city streets this week, more and more of them are clogging up with leaves and flooding the surrounding streets. Urban trees can offer many benefits: Wildlife habitat, higher home values, less carbon dioxide in the air and they actually soak up a lot of storm water. But when heavy winter rains hit, there’s also a drawback to having so many trees in the city: Their leaves can become a flood risk.

Ryan Sharp clears leaves from a storm drain near his house to prevent his basement from flooding.

Ryan Sharp clears leaves from a storm drain near his house to prevent his basement from flooding.

Within minutes of Sharp and Axelrod clearing the storm drains at 37th, the river along Belmont shrank down to a third of its size. It’s a dirty job, but Axelrod has seen what happens if someone doesn’t step up.

“I just finally finished fixing up my basement that flooded in May,” he said. “I really don’t want to go through that again.”

Voluntarily clearing out the storm drains near your house can actually make a big difference in heavy rains, said Cheryl Kuck, spokeswoman for Portland’s Bureau of Transportation.

“We need the public’s help to clear the debris from the top of the drains,” she said. “It’s leaves, it’s dirt, it’s small branches and twigs.”

The city has had crews working since last night to respond to reports of clogged drains.

It also has stepped up leaf collections starting Nov. 1 with special attention to what Kuck calls “leaf zones.”

“Those are areas that have dense urban canopies that drop a lot of leaves on the streets,” she said. “More than what our normal street cleaning operation can handle.”

Portland’s 30 “leaf zones” cover about 25 percent of the city, and they receive extra attention from clean-up crews 10 hours a day seven days a week in November and December.

Axelrod said he wishes the city of Portland would do more to make sure people move their cars for leaf clean-ups. Kuck said actually some neighborhoods have agreed to pay for the city to move parked cars so leaf clean-up crews can do their job more effectively.

In Northwest Portland and Sullivan’s Gulch, residents pay an extra $15 apiece to have the city blockade their streets and clear parked cars to make sure leaves can be removed.

It’s expensive to do these “ticket and tow” leaf clean-ups, Kuck said, but it makes a big difference because without moving the parked cars the city can’t even get its leaf-cleaning equipment onto some streets.

The cheaper option is for residents to clear their own leaves from the street and from nearby storm drains. Have you gone out and cleared your neighborhood storm drain? Feel free to send pictures!

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