Climate change, aging infrastructure and rapid development fuel Asheville stormwater woes - Storm Water Jobs


Climate change, aging infrastructure and rapid development fuel Asheville stormwater woes

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ASHEVILLE -- These days, when it rains, it really pours. Due to global climate change, “Heavy downpours are increasing nationally,” noted the National Climate Assessment’s 2014 report, compiled by hundreds of experts overseen by a 60-member federal advisory committee. And in the Southeast, rain intensity has increased nearly 30 percent in recent decades, the report concluded. Here in Asheville, however, climate change is only one factor driving a rising tide of stormwater problems. Aging infrastructure and rapid rates of development are exacerbating the weather issues. And meanwhile, longtime residents in many parts of town say some streets, yards and basements that had never experienced flooding before are now turning into raging rivers or roiling pools with frightening regularity. But addressing Asheville’s stormwater challenges won’t be easy, cheap or quick. The annual capital budget for fixing these problems — roughly $1.1 million to $2.3 million, financed by stormwater fees paid as part of property owners’ water bills — doesn’t come close to meeting the needs. “We do include money in the budget every year for stormwater fixes, but it’s probably not nearly enough,” says City Council member Julie Mayfield, who ranks the issue among the most pressing challenges the city faces. Boundary issues Part of the difficulty of dealing with stormwater problems, says Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball, stems from the complex mix of ownership of the various pipes, culverts, ditches and drains involved, as well as the finer points of where the city’s responsibility ends and private property owners’ begins. “The reason cities got into the stormwater business in the first place was to make roads safe and passable,” Ball explains. For the most part, cities are on the hook for keeping roadways clear of water; other concerns — including erosion, flooding on private property and underground drainage pipes residents may not even know they own — fall outside the public realm. Yet even looking solely at city-owned rights of way, says Ball, “The fees we collect are not enough to really improve that infrastructure to the extent where we aren’t having some problems.” WHERE THE MONEY GOES: For the 2017-18 fiscal year, the city’s stormwater department plans to add three positions, bringing its total to 42 staffers. A new project manager will help handle the capital projects load, while two camera crew members will assist with camera inspection of 3.5 linear miles of pipe. Graphic by Norn Cutson WHERE THE MONEY GOES: For the 2017-18 fiscal year, the city’s stormwater department plans to add three positions, bringing its total to 42 staffers. A new project manager will help handle the capital projects load, while two camera crew members will assist with camera inspection of 3.5 linear miles of pipe. Graphic by Norn Cutson In the proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year, which begins July 1, the Finance Department projects total stormwater fee revenue of $5.6 million, reflecting a 5 percent increase in stormwater rates passed by Council in March. The Stormwater Services Division plans to spend roughly one-third of that revenue — $1.83 million — on capital improvements, such as installing about 2,000 feet of pipe. City Council is expected to approve a budget on June 13. But for Mayfield, who’s also co-director of the environmental nonprofit MountainTrue, adhering to the strictest legal interpretation of the city’s responsibilities doesn’t pass the smell test. “If a citizen bought a house and there is an old pipe that’s not working anymore … these projects are tens of thousands of dollars,” she points out, adding, “They’re not things that homeowners plan to spend money on.” Providing systems for safely diverting rainwater into streams and rivers while protecting private property and downstream water quality, Mayfield maintains, is “part of our job as a city.” At the same time, she concedes, “That would commit the city to millions and millions more dollars.” Nonetheless, she says, really getting to the root of the problems will require including structures located on private property. Inundated During the public comment portion of a City Council meeting last June, neighbors of West Asheville’s Hall Fletcher Elementary School gave Council members an earful, spelling out how stormwater problems have tormented their community. Jeanne Felknor, who lives at 140 Wellington St., painted a vivid picture with photos and words. “Just on a regular rain, we have whitecaps,” she explained. And, evoking the canals of Venice, Felknor added, “You could take the gondola down the street.” She also showed a photo of water standing in her basement. WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT: In a heavy rain, Nina Hart says, water running down Wellington Street turns her front yard into something more akin to a river or lake. Photo courtesy of Nina Hart WHATEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT: In a heavy rain, Nina Hart says, water running down Wellington Street turns her front yard into something more akin to a river or lake. Photo courtesy of Nina Hart Yet when residents asked city staff for help, said Nina Hart of 166 Wellington St., they were told, “Each affected resident would have to pull a permit and be required to pay the Corps of Engineers to dictate a plan that would include the involvement of private engineers that we would have to pay for as well.” Staff, continued Hart, said, “Each resident involved could end up spending around $30,000 for water mitigation, while the city was not responsible.” In 2004, Tadd Clarkson bought a home at 25 Longview Road, above Hall Fletcher Elementary. He knew that water from the street sometimes flowed into the front yard, and he invested time and money on measures to divert the water “with some success,” he said. But in the summer of 2012, city crews installed a new curb a few houses away from Clarkson’s property. “When that curb was put in, the water coming down the street and down my yard increased exponentially,” overwhelming his previous fixes, noted Clarkson. Over a period of years, he’s sought assistance from various city agencies, including Public Works and Stormwater Services, without getting any relief. Other neighbors said a curb installed at Hall-Fletcher Elementary in 2015 had exacerbated the problems on Wellington Street, as has new development in the area. “We need amazing stormwater engineers to take this on,” former Wellington Street resident Miriam Allen observed.

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