Analyzing Mitigation Strategies for Flood-Prone Philadelphia Community

Photo from Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition

Hydrology is the study of the properties, distribution, and effects of water on the Earth’s surface, in the soil and underlying rocks, and in the atmosphere. The hydrologic cycle includes all of the ways in which water cycles from land to the atmosphere and back. Hydrologists study natural water-related events such as drought, rainfall, stormwater runoff, and floods, as well as how to predict and manage such events. On the application side, hydrology provides basic laws, equations, algorithms, procedures, and modeling of these events.

Hydraulics is the study of the mechanical behavior of water in physical systems. In engineering terms, hydraulics is the analysis of how surface and subsurface waters move from one point to the next, such as calculating the depth of flow in a pipe or open channel. Hydraulic analysis is used to evaluate flow in rivers, streams, stormwater management networks, sewers, and much more.

Combined hydrologic and hydraulic data, tools, and models are used for analyzing the impacts that waterflow – precipitation, stormwater, floods, and severe storms – will have on the existing infrastructure. This information is also used to make future land-use decisions and improvements that will work within the constraints of the hydrologic cycle and won’t exacerbate flooding or cause water quality impairment.

Simply put, hydrologic and hydraulic modeling is an essential component of any effective flood risk management plan.

Putting Hydrologic & Hydraulic Analysis to Work in Philadelphia

Eastwick, a low-lying urbanized neighborhood in Southwest Philadelphia, is located in the Schuylkill River Watershed and is almost completely surrounded by water: The Cobbs and Darby creeks to the west, the Delaware River and wetlands to the south, and the Schuylkill River and Mingo Creek to the east. The community is at continual risk of both riverine and coastal flooding, and faces an uncertain future due to sea level rise and riverine flooding exacerbated by climate change.

Princeton Hydro, along with project partners KeystoneConservation and University of Pennsylvania, conducted an analysis of Eastwick, the flood impacts created by the Lower Darby Creek, and the viability of several potential flood mitigation strategies.

Flood mitigation approaches can be structural and nonstructural. Structural mitigation techniques focus on reconstructing landscapes, including building floodwalls/seawalls and installing floodgates/levees. Nonstructural measures work to reduce damage by removing people and property out of risk areas, including zoning, elevating structures, and conducting property buyouts.

For Eastwick, studying stream dynamics is a key component to determining what type of flood mitigation strategies will yield the most success, as well as identifying the approaches that don’t work for this unique area.

Princeton Hydro Senior Ecologist Christiana Pollack CFM, GISP participated in a workshop for Eastwick residents held by CCRUN and the Lower Darby Creek team. The goal of the workshop was to get the community’s input on the accuracy of the predictive models.Princeton Hydro’s study focused on the key problem areas in Eastwick: the confluence of Darby Creek and Cobbs Creek; a constriction at Hook Road and 84th Street; and the Clearview Landfill, which is part of the Lower Darby Creek Superfund site. Additionally, the study sought to answer questions commonly asked by community members related to flooding conditions, with the main question being: What impact does the landfill have on area flooding?

The built-up landfill is actually much higher than the stream bed, which creates a major disconnection between the floodplain and the stream channel. If the landfill didn’t exist, would the community still be at risk? If we increased the floodplain into the landfill, would that reduce neighborhood flooding?

Princeton Hydro set out to answer these questions by developing riverine flooding models primarily using data from US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS). FEMA looks at the impacts of 1% storms that are primarily caused by precipitation events as well as coastal storms and storm surge. NOAA looks at the impacts of hurricanes. And, NOAA’s NWS estimates sea, lake and overland storm surge heights from hurricanes.

This is an example of a 2D model showing where the water is originating, how the water flows through the neighborhood, moves to the lower elevations, and eventually sits.

This is an example of a 2D model showing where the water is originating, how the water flows through the neighborhood, moves to the lower elevations, and eventually sits.

The models used 2D animation to show how the water flows in various scenarios, putting long-held assumptions to the test.

The models looked at several different strategies, including the complete removal of the Clearview Landfill, which many people anticipated would be the silver bullet to the area’s flooding. The modeling revealed, however, that those long-held assumptions were invalid. Although the landfill removal completely alters the flood dynamics, the neighborhood would still flood even if the landfill weren’t there. Additionally, the modeling showed that the landfill is actually acting as a levee for a large portion of the Eastwick community.

This model was developed to illustrate how the removal of the landfill impacts waterflow through the Eastwick community.

This model was developed to illustrate how the removal of the landfill impacts waterflow through the Eastwick community.

Ultimately, the research and modeling helped conclude that for the specific scenarios we studied, altering stream dynamics – a non-structural measure – is not a viable flood mitigation strategy.

The USACE is currently undergoing a study in collaboration with the Philadelphia Water Department to test the feasibility of a levee system (a structural control measure), which would protect the Eastwick community by diverting the flood water. Funding for the study is expected to be approved in the coming year.

Take a Deeper Look at Eastwick Flood Mitigation Efforts

There are many studies highlighting flood mitigation strategies, environmental justice, and climate change vulnerability in Eastwick. Princeton Hydro Senior Project Manager and Senior Ecologist, Christiana Pollack CFM, GISP, presented on the flooding in Eastwick at the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast Seminar held at Drexel University. The seminar also featured presentations from Michael Nairn of the University of Pennsylvania Urban Studies Department, Ashley DiCaro of Interface Studios, and Dr. Philip Orton of Stevens Institute of Technology.

You can watch the full seminar here:

For more information about Princeton Hydro’s flood management services, go here: http://bit.ly/PHfloodplain.

Levee Inspections Along the Elizabeth River

Ursino Dam on the Elizabeth River in Union County, New Jersey is one of the sites Princeton Hydro inspected for flood control, ensuring the system is providing the level of protection it was designed to deliver.

By Brendon Achey, Princeton Hydro’s Lead Geologist; Soils Laboratory Manager; Project Manager

Located 20 miles southwest of New York City, the City of Elizabeth, New Jersey, is situated along the Elizabeth River. For the city’s 125,000 residents, living along the river has many benefits, but the benefits are not without flood risk. In order to manage the risk associated with potential flooding, a series of levees and floodwalls were installed along the banks of the Elizabeth River. A levee is an embankment that is constructed to prevent overflow from a river. They are a crucial element for protecting cities from disastrous flooding, and as such they require periodic inspections to ensure that all components are functioning properly.

Princeton Hydro was contracted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District (USACE NYD) to perform rigorous flood control project inspections (i.e., “Periodic Inspections”) for the four levee systems located along the Elizabeth River.  For this project, our team inspected over 17,000 linear feet of levee embankment and 2,500 linear feet of floodwall.

Levee systems are comprised of components which collectively provide flood risk management to a defined area. These components can include levees, structural floodwalls, closure gates, pumping stations, culverts, and interior drainage works. These components are interconnected and collectively ensure the protection of development and/or infrastructure that is situated within a floodplain. Failure of just one critical component within a system could constitute an overall system failure. During Hurricane Katrina, for example, dozens of levees were destroyed, leaving the Louisiana coast with billions of dollars in damage and over one thousand lives lost.

Periodic inspections are necessary in order to ensure a levee system will perform as expected. They are also needed to identify deficiencies in the levee, or areas that need monitoring or immediate repair. Critically important maintenance activities include continuously assessing the integrity of the levee system to identify changes over time, collecting information to help inform decisions about future actions, and providing the public with information about the levees on which they rely.

Levee Inspection Process

Periodic inspections are extremely comprehensive and include three key steps: data collection, field inspection, and development of a final report.

Data Collection

Prior to conducting field inspections, Princeton Hydro’s engineers evaluated the Elizabeth River levee system’s documented design criteria. This evaluation was conducted to assess the ability of each feature and the overall system to function as authorized, and also to identify any potential need to update the system design. Princeton Hydro teamed with HDR to carry out the inspections. A comprehensive review of existing data on operation and maintenance, previous inspections, emergency action plans, and flood fighting records was also performed.

Field Inspection

The Princeton Hydro field inspection team consisted of geotechnical, water resource, mechanical, structural, and electrical engineers. Detailed inspections were performed on each segment of each levee system.  This included the detailed inspection and documentation of over 17,000 linear feet of levee embankment, over 2,500 linear feet of floodwall, four pumping stations, 29 interior drainage structures, five closure gates, and various other encroachments and facilities. Princeton Hydro identified, evaluated, and rated the state of each of these system elements. As part of this field inspection task, Princeton Hydro utilized a state-of-the-art tablet and GIS technology in order to field-locate inspection points and record item ratings. This digital collection of data helps expedite data processing and ensures higher levels of accuracy.

Development of Final Report

Princeton Hydro prepared a Periodic Inspection Report for each of the four levee systems inspected, which included the results of the design document review, methods and results of the field inspection, a summary of areas/items of concern, a preliminary engineering assessment of causes of distress or abnormal conditions, and recommendations for remedial actions to address identified concerns. Final report development included briefing the USACE Levee Safety Officer (LSO) on our inspection findings, assigned ratings, and recommendations.

Levee inspections are vital to the longevity of levee systems and the safety of the communities they protect. By providing the municipalities with detailed inspection reports, effective repair and management programs can be designed and implemented efficiently. This helps to ensure the levee systems are providing the level of protection that they were designed to deliver.

Princeton Hydro’s Geoscience and Water Resource Engineering teams perform levee and dam inspections throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England Regions. For more info, visit: http://bit.ly/PHEngineering

Brendon Achey provides a wide range of technical skills and services for Princeton Hydro. His responsibilities include: project management, preparation and quality control of technical deliverables, geotechnical investigations and analysis, groundwater hydrology, soil sampling plan design and implementation, and site characterization. He is responsible for managing the daily operations of the AASHTO accredited and USACE validated soil testing laboratory. In addition to laboratory testing and analysis, Brendon is responsible for analyzing results in support of geotechnical and stormwater management design evaluations. This may include bearing capacity and settlement analysis of both shallow and deep foundations, retaining wall design, and recommendations for stormwater management practices.