Managing water: West Chester and Cape May Point

A Stream Protection Fee will take effect in West Chester in a few months. The online overview identifies the issues the fee will help solve: water pollution, flooding and erosion, and degradation of our storm water pipes, drains, and other infrastructure.

Water has been in the news a lot lately. We just saw it battering the shores in Florida and covering route 95 in North Carolina. Meanwhile, in parts of the West reservoirs are drying up and the risk of forest fires increases. Traditional weather patterns are disrupted, warmer seas and air cause bigger storms, and the arctic ice is melting. A scary New York Times article just showed devastating effects if a hurricane directly hits Houston and the center of the US petro-chemical industry.

flooding-1In Cape May Point last week, I observed something of a flood in the back yard of our rental unit, even though it had not rained for three days. The owner blamed pavers that were added not long ago in a yard nearby. A glance over the fence showed that the back yard next door was doing more than its part in collecting runoff.flooding-2

It took a week (Friday to Friday) for the water to recede, and then it started raining again and the water rose even higher than before. I think there are three reasons:

1) Impermeable areas–houses, sheds, decks, driveways, pavers–concentrate rain in the remaining permeable areas, which are then overloaded. One house in the same block has been operating a sump pump almost continuously. In a construction hole in a non-flooded property, I noted the water table only about 7 inches down; that block must be better at shedding water than this one, but that is still uncomfortably close to the surface.

Here is the view between the essentially impermeable yard and the water buildup next door.flooding-3

2) Rising sea levels. Not a lot, maybe a couple of inches since Cape May Point started being built up in the 1870s, but every inch raises the water table and cuts down available drainage capacity underground.

3) Starting in the 1870s, Cape May Point borough (much smaller than West Chester) was built up in a marshy area, obviously without proper protection of natural drainage areas. The state park is right next door, with marshes and ponds behind the dunes. In Cape May Point, wet areas must have been filled in and built over… with consequences.

A 1936 hurricane shaved off a whole street at the edge of Cape May Point. The higher the water on both sides of the dunes, the more vulnerable today’s houses will become. As we see from the Cape May Point web site, flooding is a serious concern here. “Cape May Point Flood Service Information” shows that Cape May Point has been taking extensive protective measures, with the Army Corps of Engineers, such as beach replenishment, dune reconstruction, and additional storm drains. Water is a big deal in the area; the three front-page articles in the October 5 issue of the Cape May Star and Wave are about salt water intrusion into city wells, flood zoning by FEMA on Delaware Bay, and flooding in West Cape May.

Back now to West Chester. Although our borough is at the top of a hill, we also have water issues. Streams drain outward from the high point at Marshall Square Park. In some areas, due to earlier filling of low areas, construction, channelization, and debris, streams can overflow in a flood (notably, where Goose Creek enters a pipe under Franklin St. and Rubinstein’s). In other areas, stagnant water can favor the breeding of mosquitoes. Basements regularly take on water. Streets have low patches which can ice over dangerously in winter. And it’s not just about flooding. We need healthy streams and good drainage as part of our sustainability aspirations.

When water drains too fast, it carries polluting wastes and erodes stream banks; when it drains too slowly, it builds up in streets and yards… just like in Cape May Point. At least, we don’t have the ocean to worry about on top of our hill, and lower-lying parts of the County face more water danger than we do.

I applaud the Borough for taking steps to remedy our water problem with funding from all property owners (and not just the homeowners and businesses), since all properties that allow any water runoff contribute to the problem. Just as we collectively contribute to the problem, so we will collectively contribute to the solution.

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About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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