Adapting Wheaton to Climate Change

Using green infrastructure is an important strategy in our nation’s adaptation to climate change. Greening Wheaton, therefore, can help us adapt locally to our rapidly changing climate.


Using green infrastructure is an important strategy in our nation’s adaptation to climate change.  Greening Wheaton, therefore, not only creates a beautiful, more people-friendly community, but it will help us adapt locally to our rapidly changing climate. 

What does climate change mean in our region?  According the 2008 Comprehensive Assessment of Climate Change Impacts in Maryland, we can expect (and we have started seeing) temperature increases and more extreme precipitation events such as heavy downpours and floods, interspersed with droughts.  In addition to climate change, land use changes have also contributed to heat island effects, localized warming in urban areas, and flooding. 

I noticed that during the hard rain of Hurricane Sandy nearly everyone was inside their homes, warm, dry, and completely unaware of what occurs when we have heavy rains. Most are just as unaware of what increased precipitation and flooding could mean to Wheaton in the future.  As far as most Wheaton residents are concerned, when it rains, the runoff simply disappears into storm drains.  

What actually happens is quite interesting, and the knowledge of what happens is useful in planning climate change adaptation in urban areas. In most of the Wheaton Central Business District (CBD), if everything is working properly, the runoff goes down the stormdrains and is quickly carried by way of stormwater mains to the Wheaton Branch Stormwater ponds along Dennis Ave. 

During heavy rains, the three ponds fill up and becomes a lake.  A stormwater control structure at one end ofthe ponds slowly lets stormwater out of the ponds and into Wheaton Branch and eventually into Sligo Creek, thus helping to prevent flooding downstream.  An earthen dam keeps the rising water level of the lake from flooding the residential areas in the Forest Estates community.  The water level in the ponds is monitored to help protect the homes downstream of the earthen dam.  When there is an unusually heavy rain, the amount of water draining from the ponds increases. If there is an extreme rain event like our ever increasing “100-year storms”, the homes downstream from the dam may need to be evacuated. 

Is there anything we can do locally to help locally to adapting to climate change and its impacts? According to recent scientific reports, adding 10% green infrastructure in high-density residential areas and in town centers keeps maximum surface temperatures lower and significantly reduces stormwater runoff.

Preserving our existing green space in and around Wheaton is vitally important.  At the beginning of this blog, I used the term “green infrastructure.” What do I mean by green infrastructure? It means using natural systems such as soils and vegetation to provide ecosystem services such as providing clean drinking water, decomposition of waste and other public “goods” that can supplement or replace built services. 

In existing urban areas like the Wheaton CBD, that means installing green roofs and green walls, tree plantings, and green street projects.  Not only do we need to install green features, but we also need to become better stewards of our properties.  It makes little sense to plant trees if we  do not know how to maintain them or do not allow through on the maintenance. 

Getting people to be better stewards of their properties may be our biggest challenge.  Right before the hurricane many residents were raking their leaves into the gutter and in front of the storm drains completely oblivious to the fact that the leaves could help clog up the storm drains during a heavy rain. If you are interested in helping us green Wheaton, join GreenWheaton www.greenwheaton.org and follow us on Facebook.

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Anne Ambler November 16, 2012 at 03:29 PM
Very useful piece, tying things together. With respect to reducing retained heat and absorbing water, please note that our mania of converting grass athletic fields to plastic and used tire crumbs over a bed of rocks works in exactly the opposite way. We create more hot spots and more acreage that must be treated like a parking lot for purposes of stormwater. As a bonus, we get toxins running off in the water.
Jewel Barlow November 16, 2012 at 05:12 PM
Ed Murtaugh has given a description of the current storm water path. As a part of efforts to "green Wheaton" there is a need to adopt extensive distributed storm water handling that puts almost all of the water back into infiltration paths through the soil rather than collecting it in large scale storm drains as is the universal practice now. Ed is active in this effort so he can elaborate on aspects of it as he is motivated to provide education on the topic. For anyone interested in the topic the current issue of the magazine, Stormwater has several good articles. Two titles in particular are "Subsurface Gravel Wetlands......" and "Zero Discharge ... Eliminates.. CSO Connection in NYC". The link to the magazine is http://www.stormh2o.com/SW/articles.aspx . Both of these articles show the powerful filtering effects of these approaches even for highly toxic materials.
Ed Murtagh November 16, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Thanks Jewel! Stormwater Magazine, one of my favorite magazines (I hope I don’t sound too geeky.) It’s the only magazine where you can read interesting articles about using “treatment trains” and elegant stormwater management solutions to complex industrial sites. The comment near the end of the NYC article about how naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil metabolizing the hydrocarbons into byproducts of carbon dioxide and water is very relevant to Montgomery County. Healthy soils have an amazing ability to cleanse our polluted stormwater runoff from parking lots, driveways , roads and other potential sources our petroleum/hydrocarbons. I think my next blog will be on the subject of soils.


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