Science of the city: Hyattsville focuses on green stormwater projects it can control
By Paul Ruffins
Of Hyattsville’s environmental issues, stormwater runoff is the easiest to see. Rain regularly floods an area residents have nicknamed Lake Gallatin, near where 40th Avenue, Hamilton Street, Gallatin Street and the Driskell Park entrance road meet. Paths through the park also become submerged.
College Park and Hyattsville Stormwater Flooding
That’s actually our good luck. In neighboring College Park, the worst flooding hits homes directly.
In both communities, global warming and increased runoff from local development are causing flooding in areas that were dry in the 1970s.
Some Hyattsville residents and businesses endure wet basements, particularly near the corner of 41st and Rhode Island avenues, and along 40th Avenue north of Jefferson Street. When stormwater infiltrates Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s aging infrastructure, raw sewage can back up into homes.
But College Park’s problem may be worse: In September 2020, entire residential streets in the Calvert Hills neighborhood were under water. Even ordinary rains cause raw sewage to back up into residents’ basements there.
The $15 million Calvert Hills Drainage Improvement Project proposes to solve this through traditional civil engineering techniques: It will enlarge underground culverts under Route 1 and construct two new underground vaults that can store 2.4 million gallons of runoff, to be slowly released into the Northeast Branch Anacostia River.
In Hyattsville, the city’s proposed budget includes almost $2 million in citywide stormwater mitigation, including a tree health initiative and the construction of a submerged wetland. The largest item is implementing the recommendations of the Lower Ward 1 Resilient Stormwater Systems Planning Study. The study lists 13 different opportunities to retrofit local facilities and ranks each one in terms of reducing local flooding and improving water quality.
Hyattsville stormwater projects primarily use newer green engineering to manage stormwater close to where it falls, replacing concrete or asphalt with permeable surfaces and creating artificial wetlands and bioswales — channels designed to collect and filter runoff.
Environmental impact of stormwater flooding
The nonprofit Low Impact Development Center developed the plan in partnership with Weston and Sampson, a civil engineering firm. The center’s executive director, Neil Weinstein, explained that when municipalities first started managing stormwater in the 1960s and ‘70s, the focus was on flood control. Today, there is a competing priority of pollution control because runoff is the fastest growing threat to the Chesapeake Bay.
Weinstein said, “By law, Maryland cities and towns must reduce three types of runoff. Total suspended solids make the water murky and reduce the sunlight needed by sea grasses. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients from fertilizer and animal and human waste. They cause algae blooms that deplete the bay’s oxygen, creating dead zones where nothing can live. The point of green water management is to let water percolate into the ground, or slow it down in areas filled with plants that absorb water, filter out trash and dirt and take up the nitrogen and phosphorus.”
Some residents, including Chuck Perry, who lives near Wells Parkway, are mostly concerned with flooding. Perry asked, “Won’t things like bioswales or artificial wetlands become breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread Zika virus?” When that question was put to City Councilmember Ben Simasek (Ward 3), a liaison to the Hyattsville Environment Committee, he responded, “It’s possible, but the answer is always proper design and maintenance. … There’s no real trade off. The bioswale that filters out pollution also traps trash and sticks that could clog up a storm drain and flood your street.”
Local projects to combat stormwater flooding
College Park is also a community that prides itself on its environmental consciousness. Therefore, the difference between grey, or traditional civil engineering, approaches adopted in College Park or, and the green techniques applied in Hyattsville is based not on ideology but local hydrology and, perhaps more importantly, the possibility of local control.
The Calvert Hills Project took a decade to get approved and is currently at least two years behind schedule, as it required the consent and coordination of at least half a dozen state and local government entities.
In contrast, Hyattsville’s public information officer, Cindy Zork, explained that Hyattsville has prioritized projects to reduce local flooding that the city can largely control and finance itself — particularly those projects closest to 41st and 42nd streets and Rhode Island Avenue. Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4), another liaison to the city environment committee, believes that the issue of control can’t be overemphasized. Haba argues, “The number one problem in solving local stormwater issues is money. But two, three and four are permitting, zoning and enforcement, which are all under the control of Prince George’s County.”
He gave the example of the controversial Werrlein Properties’ Suffrage Point construction project, whose construction runoff helps flood the octopus intersection.
Haba said he had wanted to preserve the lower parking lot as open space. “However, the city didn’t have the cash to buy the property, nor the authority to rezone it for open space, or to approve the building plans, or enforce the permits,” he explained. “Therefore, after the county rezoned it for individual homes, I supported the current project because the old parking lot was a completely paved-over impervious surface. When the project is properly completed, there should be less runoff than before, but we should have been able to control our own zoning.”
Simasek also believes that local input and control is critical to handling environmental issues. He believes that the county’s transit district development plan has a pretty good vision for improvements near Prince George’s Plaza Metro station, which has acres of parking lots built long before any accounting for stormwater management. The new Nine Pond project will create a public pond to hold 17.9 million gallons of runoff and create new bike and walking trails.
On the other hand, Simasek is much more ambivalent about the county approving the Riverfront at West Hyattsville Metro townhouse development. “The Metro station is right in the middle of a flood plain, and the Prince George’s County Climate Action Plan directly recommends against allowing any new developments in flood plains,” he noted. “I know the Riverfront developers say they’ve regraded some sort of retention pond. But what will happen in a hurricane?”