Drainage Infrastructure Leads to Wet Basement Stories

January 24, 2024
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There is often a bigger story behind home flooding — how effectively the community is regulating stormwater and storm sewers. Photo: Paul Gorbould via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

TipSheet: Drainage Infrastructure Leads to Wet Basement Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

Do residents of your community dread the basement flooding that often follows heavy rain? Those wet cellars — or the area conditions that create them — may mean important local reporting angles for environmental journalists.

Of course, with a flooded house the first step (and often, a useful local story) is just cleaning up the mess, or simply hauling the family photo albums and valuables to safety. There are a lot of companies that help do this and make money doing it.

Then comes the drainage overhaul — on which local contractors can also make big money, and another story can be told.

But often there is another, bigger story that many homeowners (and journalists) miss. That one is about how your neighborhood, development, town, county or region regulates stormwater and storm sewers.


The backstory

According to insurance industry figures, some 98 percent of basements will experience water damage at some point in time.

But whatever community you are reporting on has its own unique story. There were not always houses, streets and sewers there. They were built (maybe at various times). And before that, there were Indigenous, glacial and geologic backstories too.


The changing precipitation

patterns resulting from

climate heating may be

contributing to the problems.


OK, so you may not care if the prehistoric Laurentide ice sheet sculpted your neighborhood, but this history has a lot to do with the soil profile and drainage in your neighborhood. And the changing precipitation patterns resulting from climate heating may be contributing to the problems today as well.

Chicago, for just one example, has a longstanding problem with basement flooding. While 20,000 years ago, Chicagoland was buried in ice and Lake Michigan did not exist in its present form, present-day Chicago was built on a swamp.

And that’s part of the problem. Engineers made the city possible by draining and filling the natural landscape and by reversing the flow of rivers (not to mention dyeing them green on St. Patrick’s Day).

Chicago notoriously attacked its flooding problem by building the “Deep Tunnel” project — to temporarily store stormwater and sanitary system overflows underground until they can be treated.

This expensive approach has had some success in places like Washington, D.C. But in Chicago, after some 30 years of construction and $3 billion spent, it’s still not finished. And yes, Chicago basements still flood.

Chicago is not alone, of course. Stormwater has flooded basements in many other cities: Toledo, Philadelphia, Detroit, Akron, St. Louis, etc. It’s worse, of course, when the water comes from combined storm-sanitary sewers that may have toilet waste as well.


Story ideas

  • Look into what kind of measures home and building owners can take themselves to mitigate basement flooding. Among them: cleaning gutters and downspouts regularly, covering window wells, Roto-Rootering any roots that have grown into drainage pipes, and most importantly, grading yard soil so it drains away from the house.
  • Did the sewer actually back up? Sometimes sewers clog. Most storm sewers have sediment basins to catch trash and grit from the water. Municipalities should clean or pump these out regularly, but often fail to do so for budget reasons. There are other maintenance measures as well that help.
  • Are the storm sewers over capacity? Can your local sewer agency tell you what the capacity actually is? How much rain (over what period) will overload them? Were they designed for less building density than your area has today? Look at the plat maps to better understand your area’s sewer history. Ask if your community has any plans to upgrade sewers.
  • Check the agencies that issue planning approvals and building permits in your area. Do they require drainage plans for new structures? Do they enforce permit conditions regarding drainage?
  • What measures has your community taken to slow or prevent stormwater surges from reaching overcapacity sewers? This goes beyond expensive tunnels to things like retention ponds. Are these required for new developments?
  • Has your community ever tried to install permeable pavements, which route runoff to groundwater aquifers instead of sewers?
  • Has your community made any effort to build “green infrastructure”? This could involve routing runoff through grassy swales or rain gardens, and other things not involving concrete.


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: Check out our past flood coverage, including TipSheets on inland flooding, extreme rainfall, a checklist for flood readiness, flood-resistant building construction, building in flood plains, the public health threat of combined sewer overflows and how extreme weather amplifies hazardous waste threats. Also see Reporter’s Toolboxes on mapping flood risk, understanding storm surge maps and using data sources to track climate-driven mayhem at Superfund sites. And check out a book author interview on the history of rain and a feature on the inequities of flooding. Plus, get extreme rain and flooding headlines from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 4. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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