Farewell to stormwater

Photograph by Richard Robinson
Natural model for draining the rain


Some years ago an inspector called in to check that no stormwater was entering my foul drainage system. I explained I did not have any stormwater. He bristled, as inspectors tend to do, at the thought that someone was trying to get smart with him. Nevertheless he responded to my invitation to come on in.
He looked up at the roof of the house and could not believe what he was seeing. "You don't have any gutters!" he stuttered. I followed his gaze and found I had to agree with him. "That's all right" he continued "you indeed don't have any stormwater."




I suddenly realised where stormwater comes from.

Stormwater is not some curse given by God to suffering human beings for them to deal with. If stormwater is a problem it is a problem of our own making and one which could simply disappear with a change of attitude. 

When Councils explain that they need a substantial budget to deal with "the stormwater problem" they really mean that they are about to use scarce resources to enlarge a problem which did not exist before they arrived. Is this problem really necessary? The best, and most inexpensive, way of dealing with any problem is always to simply avoid it. 

In nature the ever-changing rhythms of the water cycle delight both the eye and the human spirit. We seem to have forgotten how water brings us life. Our problem is not water but rather badly designed roads, badly designed architecture, and badly designed cities. Good urban design simply integrates the beauty of the water cycle into the built environment and there is no problem.
The first easy and zero-cost urban design move is to do a language check. Negative language normally leads to negative action. We need to acknowledge that stormwater is not water which results from storms.
It is not necessary to be an ecologist to observe that when a storm brings heavy rainfall to an area covered in bush the rivers rise a little and then they continue flowing for many days after the storm has passed. The bush absorbs most of the stormwater and releases it slowly over time.
When the trees are cut down everything changes. Venice floods. Matata floods. It is unreasonable to blame the storms. The responsibility lies with the society which cut down the trees.
More specifically one group of people make a profit out of cutting down trees, while another group of people carry the cost of the damage to the water cycle. This is a common enough situation in environmental matters. It has nothing to do with stormwater.
Design in nature slows down the passage of water. However the many curves in a river do much more than just slow down the river. They also allow for sediment to drop out. They allow for purification as an inherent characteristic of the water cycle.
When streams are put into pipes, and those pipes become straight lines the result is that pollutants, heavy metals and dog excrement find their way directly to our harbours in the shortest possible time. There is no purification. Unfortunately it gets worse. The result of this engineering strategy is the desalination of our harbours and the collapse of salt-water ecological systems.
Rates are presently being used to destroy the very things we love. We value coastal properties but it seems that we do not value the ecological integrity of the coastal environment.
Buildings and cities need to become collectors, like the forests. In a carbon-neutral, zero-waste world this would be taken for granted. We can no longer afford fashionable architecture which irresponsibly converts valuable resources into junk.
The era when you could tip whatever you felt you did not want over the fence to become someone else's problem has brought us to the point of ecological collapse. Adopting an ethic of doing no harm to the natural environment is now a matter of common sense rather than self-righteousness.
Attitudes can change. It took an enormous effort by Dove Myer Robinson to convince the Council of the day that it was not a good idea to spend money pouring raw sewage into the Waitemata. The time has now come to stop spending money pouring what is euphemistically called "stormwater" into our harbours.
Urban design should have nothing to do with cosmetic appearance and fashion trends. When the water cycle, and other natural cycles, are fully integrated into the design of buildings and the design of cities, beauty will flow from the inner integrity, wholesomeness and goodness of our architecture.
Ugliness in a carbon-neutral future will be watching yet another gigantic excavation being dug to take ever more enormous culverts to conceal the passage of water through the city environment. It is a human characteristic to enjoy condemning the criminal actions of others because it serves to distract us from noticing criminal actions of our own. Our attitude towards stormwater is more dangerous than boy-racing.
In the wonderful fantasy world of architectural magazines it never rains and there are no people. At first the architecture seems very impressive, but after a few pages it becomes dull, boring and repetitive. One joyless award-winning building ends up looking like all the other joyless award-winning buildings. It is a relief to go outside and watch a rain squall sweeping up the harbour. We need to celebrate the water cycle, not deny it.
It is unreasonable to expect Metrowater ratepayers to pick up the tab for bad architecture and bad urban design. Investing in ecological collapse is a very bad investment indeed. With responsible design the numerous springs which have dried up on the Isthmus could once again bubble forth with life and bring us joy.


First published in the New Zealand Herald 5 June 2007


Photographic caption "Shooting through:Man-made drains take polluted water straight to the sea."