When my wife and I got a home inspection on the 90-year-old fixer-upper that we later ended up buying, the home inspector said it looked like the basement probably gets damp from time to time. After all, it is a 90-year-old cement bowl in the ground in a state where it rains, ever, period.
A few months after buying, when Virginia’s rainiest season arrived, we learned what “damp” means.
There was wall with a waterfall on it. And there was one spot on the floor where water would squirt out like Old Faithful. And while our sump pump has been faithful, too, the water just wouldn’t flow down to the sump pump quickly enough.
During one rainstorm, I updated my Facebook timeline to read, “I didn’t know this houe came with a swimming pool. They told us it was a basement!”
A slight exaggeration.
OK, a major exaggeration—because an inch or two is not enough for a swimming pool. But I had my moment of worry.
We got lucky. Most of the moisture problem was abated simply by replacing the gutters and doing a better job of routing the roof water away from the foundation.
But it turns out that even if water had continued to flow into our basement, someone out there has figured out a way to turn that into a good thing.
While dealing with major flooding several years ago, an employee on Milwaukee’s Flooding Task Force noticed that most instances of water backing up into people’s basements occurred in an area with many foreclosed and condemned homes. So he proposed that the city use some of those condemned homes as overflow cisterns. By allowing water to fill those basements, the sewer system (which handled rainwater as well as waste water) would be less likely to overflow.
So the city’s plan is to take a house that is set to be demolished, keep the basement, put a lot on top (perhaps for a community garden), and let the basement collect stormwater runoff.
Now, that’s an idea that holds water.
The city hopes to complete a pilot project based on the idea, called a BaseTern, by next spring.
Like Milwaukee, my city has a combined sewer system, therefore a combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem, where storm water drains along with used water and sometimes overflows. (Which is why you can’t swim in blackwater creek.) We’ve spent a ton of money upgrading it to create a separate storm water system that bypasses the water treatment plant. A couple of years ago the state gave us a huge lump sump and said “just build a bigger water treatment plant and stop asking us for CSO money.”
Thinking about how big a problem sewer overflows can be, it makes me proud to have done my part by letting water into my basement. Just think: Maybe there was someone whose basement drain did not back up a couple of years ago because the rainwater collecting in my basement made the sewer overflow just a little bit less.
And that person is probably cursing my new gutters whenever it rains today.