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GOING IN-DEPTH: How growth and development make flooding worse for us in SWFL

CLICK BELOW to see why in many areas, there's no where for the water to go.
Posted at 4:37 PM, Jun 14, 2024

SOUTHWEST, Fla. — From Naples to Fort Myers and over to LaBelle, we're hearing and seeing stories of flooding. With southwest Florida growing so quickly, there's a rush to build infrastructure to keep up. However, experts say new development is contributing to the problem.

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This past week recorded record rainfall, but in the minds of many people, a storm with no name, like a tropical storm or hurricane, shouldn't flood neighborhoods.

"Our natural systems and our built systems are stressed when they try to accommodate a real extreme event," said Don Duke, chair of FGCU's Water School. "It’s not going to drain really quickly, but it accommodated rainfall reasonably well in that period in between."

He says in many areas, there's no where for the water to go because of so many homes and businesses.

After 3 days of rain battering Lehigh Acres, on Thursday local utility managers had to move water from canals on the community's west side to the east side, to keep things under control.

"When we design residential and commercial areas, we aren't usually ready to sacrifice that much area to keep any open space," Duke explained. "It [open space] would absolutely hold back those waters much better, absorb the runoff waters and that’s what would keep it from the kind of ponding we saw yesterday."

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But with buildings on top of the open space, the water is going to stick around.

"If we were particularly thoughtful and willing to spend a little bit of money or sacrifice a little bit of growth, we could identify ways that would better absorb or detain those waters," Duke said.

FGCU Water School Chairman Don Duke
Don Duke is the chair of FGCU's Water School.

There are ways to help, but another expert says it's expensive.

"They typically would involve tunnels and all sorts of drainage systems to collect the water," said Christopher Konrad, a research hydrologist for the US Geological Survey. "Often you need to have pumps."

He says a levy or flood walls would also help the problem. However, Konrad adds there's no single solution, especially because Florida is so flat.

"It would be challenging for any municipality to deal with," Konrad said about the amount of rain southwest Florida received.

Duke says channels can carry the water, but it can't handle it all.

"But when you have one development after another after another side by side, that’s just too much for those channels to carry — either the natural ones or the ones that we’ve built," he explained.

At this point, it's not so much as preventing flooding in general, but they say rather managing the water and development.

Christopher Konrad research hydrologist US Geological Survey water expert
Christopher Konrad is a research hydrologist for the US Geological Survey.

"Trying to adapt infrastructure so that it can, we can still live when we get this flooding instead of trying to prevent any flooding at all," Konrad said.

"As we continue to build, it’ll continue to be exacerbate and continue to stress our systems even more," Duke said. "In places where we’ve built alongside those channels or built in really low-lying areas, they’re in trouble."