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‘A crisis of opportunity’: Floods present chance to learn

August 10, 2018

The great July floods washed away fences and livestock, flooded yards and basements, and raised more than a few questions about the Santa Fe area’s preparedness for future wet-weather disasters, particularly as global temperatures rise and exacerbate once-rare extreme climate events.

Two weeks after an extraordinary rainfall, the high-desert dig-out continues.

City crews are still receiving requests for residential damage assessments and well-water evaluations, and they have been clearing trails and picking debris out of arroyos.

Federal Emergency Management Agency crews came and went, preliminary assessments in tow, and the state is evaluating whether the scope of damage merits an emergency declaration from Gov. Susana Martinez.

Individual GoFundMe pages seeking cleanup assistance have proliferated.

A sense of foreboding hangs over it all: What happens the next time one of these 500-year or 1,000-year rains rolls through? How can we prepare and bolster our public infrastructure?

What did we learn?

That these questions are being asked at all is a silver lining in the post-flood tumult, according to city Public Works Director Regina Wheeler.

“This is sort of ‘crisis as opportunity,’ ” Wheeler said. “This really raises the issue of stormwater, which isn’t something most people think about on a daily basis. Our arroyos are generally dry. It doesn’t generally affect our day-to-day lives. But now it is a front-and-center issue.”

City workers have been developing a new stormwater management strategy for the past year and a half. Expected to be delivered to city councilors within the next 45 days, it will be the city’s first new stormwater plan since 1998.

Still, existing city infrastructure held up “fairly well” in the aftermath of the July 23 flooding, said John Romero, director of the city’s engineering division.

Some relatively new projects, such as the Acequia Trail underpass and the $1.6 million Arroyo Chamiso erosion control project, withstood the test.

Other areas, such as West Alameda Street and Nava Ade on the south side, did not fare so well.

With precipitation so far beyond the standards to which the city designs its structures, some failures are to be expected, Romero said.

“Our drainage is not designed to handle that severe a storm,” Romero said. The washout in the arroyo that runs through Nava Ade, in particular, he said, was not attributable “to the design but really the amount of water.”

Wheeler said the storm has allowed the city to assess infrastructure needs ahead of the stormwater plan’s rollout.

“With the plan coming out,” she said, “we can say, ‘These look like areas for attention,’ and run new models. We can make really good, informed decisions about where to invest.”

The time is right for the new stormwater approach, staff members said, as the shape of the city has morphed dramatically since 1998, with new development and land annexed from Santa Fe County.

Not to mention the changing character of storms, said Melissa McDonald, the city’s rivershed coordinator.

“We are having more intense storms, potentially more frequent,” she said. “They’re doing more damage in our community.”

The city has been preparing for a new Environmental Protection Agency permit for an MS4, or municipal separate storm sewer system, which should be released sometime this year. The new system requires an “infiltration model,” McDonald said, a storm-management method of capturing rainwater and allowing it to penetrate the soil rather than cause flooding and erosion downstream.

The permit sets performance standards and will establish new land-use code provisions for private-sector infrastructure development.

“When we talk about green infrastructure, this is an area the city can have some influence,” McDonald said. “Green infrastructure, low-impact development, it’s all about feeding the infiltration model.

“We want to absorb water. We want to slow water. And we want to, as best we can, guide it through our system,” she added.

The new management plan and its project list also will include recommendations about the city’s ability to bond $5 million to $10 million on its stormwater fees and suggest other mechanisms the city can explore to secure federal and state grant funding for stormwater improvements.

Staff members presented the broad strokes of the plan Monday to the Public Works Committee. Several councilors applauded the work — and its timeliness.

“It’s unfortunate what happened,” Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta said. “But we have a real opportunity.”

Councilor Peter Ives said the city has to reckon with the “new normal” — the possibility of more frequent heavy storms.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Robert Anaya, who represents the La Cienega area southwest of city limits, which experienced significant flood damage last month, said future mitigation efforts beg for a cross-jurisdictional approach.

He mentioned the concern of La Cienega constituents who complained a new county drainage structure, built to sustain a 100-year flood, overran. “You’re correct,” Anaya said. “And it’s a small structure. But it’s a $1.2 million structure.”

“There’s no way the county or any one entity can tackle it on its own,” Anaya added. “It has to be a long-term strategic initiative: How can we improve the embankments, the structures, as best we can, while also being candid about what we can’t do or what it won’t stop.”

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