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Investment of thousands today can save millions later - September 13, 2012

Last month’s flooding episode in the Berlin area serves as an important reminder of why forest and wetland conservation, stormwater management, and zoning are such critical elements when it comes to public safety.

When rain falls in urbanized areas, the lack of tree cover, which both consumes water and slows flow to the ground through leaf absorption, severely exacerbates flooding by significantly increasing the total volume of surface water.

Mature trees each drink about 200 gallons of water a day. When trees are removed and replaced with lawns, homes, or parking lots, rain flows rapidly into ditches, flooding both them and the streams and branches they empty into. Add to this the filling of forested wetlands and some towns have a disaster in the making.

Because wetlands are where nature stores and holds rainwater, filling them for development has an equal or greater effect than tree loss. The two combined are a double whammy for flood-prone areas.

On Aug. 25-26, the urbanizing area around Kitts Branch in Berlin bore testimony to this dynamic. More than nine inches of rain fell in a 12-hour period in the town and surrounding areas.

While less urbanized areas weathered the storm well, Kitts Branch, which runs under Flower Street and Old Ocean City Blvd next to AGH grew into a raging river that swept away cars, flooded homes and offices, and choked Trappe Creek (where it empties) with millions of pounds of excess nutrients and sediment. Meanwhile, Ayres Creek, just one mile to the east with its forested headwaters along Sinepuxent and Holly Grove roads, rose less than a foot.

Thankfully, Berlin is taking steps to address the stormwater problems caused by growth that occurred long before stormwater laws. With grants from the Coastal Bays Program, the town has been working to ameliorate the flooding on West Street and has removed tons of garbage from Hudson Branch that also flows to Trappe Creek.

The Coastal Bays Program also has a plan for Hudson Branch that will slow the force of water during heavy rainfall events. A stormwater utility the town is contemplating could help pay to complete these projects and create new ones to solve the historic town’s flooding woes.

To be sure, nothing can replace forests or wetlands for flood control, but improving stormwater can have a significant impact on the severity of flooding events.

However, without good planning and zoning any attempts to control flooding will be futile in the long run. Since new growth is prescribed at the headwaters of both prongs of Kitts Branch across from Stephen Decatur Middle School and on the northwest corner of routes 50 and 113, a challenge for the town will be to plant and keep as many trees and wetlands on those several-hundred-acre sites as possible and to exceed the state stormwater standard to protect residents downstream.

Thousands in investment now can save millions in cleanup later.

Any annexations or upzoning outside of what is prescribed in the Worcester County Comprehensive Plan should carefully consider impacts on public safety and on water quality.

Undoing the mistakes of the past is never easy, but learning from them and taking steps to prevent recurrence is a must when it comes to protecting lives, property, and the health of the coastal bays.


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