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Commentary Environment

Opinion: This summer’s floods are proof El Paso needs to rethink stormwater strategy

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By Jack Loveridge

Central El Paso’s Manhattan Heights and Military Heights neighborhoods feature some of the city’s top architectural treasures, but ineffective storm drainage and deadly street flooding are elements of our history that aren’t worth preserving.

Jack Loveridge

Last week’s storms show us that the city’s present storm water management strategy is not working. Simply look at loss of life and property and the debris still scattered across the historic neighborhoods on the eastern slope of Mount Franklin. From Interstate 10 – which flooded last Thursday – up to Nashville Avenue at least, you will see intersections still choked with mud and debris, torn up easements and yards, and the occasional wrecked vehicle.

From El Paso Water, tasked since 2006 with managing the city’s stormwater drainage, we hear the familiar talking points: our current strategy works and its assumptions are correct, but implementation is costly and it just takes time. Well, we’re out of time.

With a combined $501 million annual budget, El Paso Water manages catchments and retention ponds between Nashville and Memphis and just below the “A” on the mountain that do not appear to function seamlessly or are not serviced regularly enough to hold back the runoff and keep dangerous debris out of the streets. As a result, so much water rushes south and east down Nashville, Elm, and other streets that it tears the iron lids off manholes. It is a disaster for many homes and residents.

Last Thursday, from my front porch on Elm Street, I saw two cars and a truck swept away by a torrent that roared for hours. Were it not for our amazing firefighters, my neighbors and I would have likely watched a woman drown in her car after being pinned inside for more than 40 minutes.

The water here moves so fast and freely that it can submerge cars up to their windshields, toss them around like toys, and smash them into each other. Once in the water, their occupants are unreachable. The water is simply moving too fast to help. Further, these rapids have come, not “once in a blue moon,” but every time it has stormed this summer to varying degrees. This should tell us that something is terribly wrong at the level of design and policy.

This is a fixable, citywide problem, not a series of inevitable, individual misfortunes. Thursday’s deluge cannot honestly be called a rare event, a “century storm” or an act of God, as the tragedies of the 1990s and 2000s remind us.

This is the result of inadequate planning and ineffectual design, despite best efforts and intentions. Without a comprehensive strategy that adds in high-capacity storm sewers where necessary, builds up mountainside dams and retention structures, and corrects the problem of fast-moving water and debris in our streets, we can expect more losses and more tragedies. 

Relying upon the streets for storm drainage invites catastrophe, particularly in areas where the rate of flow is predictably high and the slope is steep. The water simply moves too fast without breaks and diversions – an unavoidable problem of gravity. Given this design, 10 complimentary sandbags and the slogan of “turn around, don’t drown” seem somehow lacking when stormwater pours directly into our homes from the streets.

That said, if we are going to rely on the streets as our primary means of drainage, we need to recognize that easements are a contributing source of debris. Where they are unpaved or landscaped with light materials, they can erode to depths of two to feet in minutes, exposing pipes and displacing larger rocks below.

At a bare minimum, residents must be encouraged to pave or landscape their easements within practical, debris-reducing guidelines, and to put up their own permanent flood breaks and barriers – measures to protect themselves where our municipal government does not. Still, this is not the coordinated and thoughtful solution we really need.

Looking ahead, we should expect summer storms to be more frequent and more ferocious, but these are challenges that can be met by an active, responsive government working in tandem with a well-managed water agency.

We must rethink our current strategies and management approaches, accounting for evolving conditions and the ample evidence that channeling storm water down our city streets is a costly approach. An expert-led audit and an open public discussion of a comprehensive storm sewer plan would be a productive start toward concluding this tragic history.

Jack Loveridge is senior policy advisor to the Paris Peace Forum on science and technology issues. He grew up in Central El Paso and recently moved home to the Borderland.

Cover photo: Streets in Central El Paso’s Manhattan Heights neighborhood flooded on Aug. 12, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Jack Loveridge)

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