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By Christine Whitehead


Charles Baker, General Manager of the NCCo Land Use Department, and Frank Piorkoo, DNREC’s expert working with the Governor‘s Task Force on Surface Water Management, provided the Board and guests with a very interesting March program. Charlie’s slide presentation was filled with interesting data that illuminates the challenges we face in controlling this problem. His research shows that the average annual rainfall has steadily increased over the last 55 years. The last two years topped all previous ones. Impervious cover is up to 30.5% north of the canal and 19.5% countywide. Wilmington is 49% impervious and the Newark area is 41%. This increases the speed with which water flows into streams and drainage systems. Annual peak stream flows have increased because of the removal of natural vegetation. For Red Clay Creek, 2003 was the heaviest average year. In 1999, White Clay Creek had its greatest flow in 55 years but only 3 of our 21 watersheds have experienced greater than a 50-year flood event. In the storms of 1999, 2003, and 2004, Red Clay Creek had as much water flowing as should occur only once in 500 years! The White Clay Creek had two 100-year events and the Christina has had one 100-year event. Two had only 50-year events-Brandywine and the area from New Castle to Brennan Estates to rest of Southern N.C.Co. Across the country, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeing this same pattern.

Contributing factors to the amount of damage included 5,500 structures built in the floodplains; increased flow across state lines due to upstream development; a lack of adequate stream and drainage system maintenance by private landowners, civic groups and public agencies; a lack of designed systems in older areas of the County; and incomplete floodplain mapping which contributes to structures being built where they should not be. Charlie thinks the Land Use Department is not “in charge of” water, and he says no one is entirely responsible. [Ed. Note: That means everyone is somewhat responsible. How about the planners who ignored studies showing homeowners would be flooded out if development was allowed to continue in certain river basins? How about the developers who allowed erosion-stopping fences to fall down during construction? How about planners who allowed a forest to be chopped down to make room for an active recreation area on the bank of the Red Clay Creek? How about the engineers who designed inadequate retention basins and planners who allowed one-third of the County to be paved over? How about the developers who made money putting houses too close to streams and ripping out the vegetation on the banks? Not even the Council can overrule planners who approve the design of developments. But let us not forget to include the Council members of the past who have been prosecuted for helping get plans approved. What about homeowners who remove trees and streamside vegetation.]

The federal government has mandated changes in the design of drainage systems because the old solutions will not work in a stormier world. Charlie thinks we need to think of drainage as infrastructure like sewer systems. There are no stormwater management systems in many parts of the County, so water cascades unguided downhill in our Piedmont region and sits at low points in our Coastal Plains. The low points may be a farmer’s field, a crossroads or someone’s back yard. In a drenching rain, that presents problems. Charlie sees his role as trying to help the decision-makers figure out what to do about all the problems that have been created and how to prevent more damage. FEMA, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Delaware River Basin Commission, DNREC, DelDOT, the Water Resouces Agency, Conservation Districts, Tax Ditch Corporations and Maintenance Corporations all have a role in drainage. Still drainage is reviewed site by site and not at a watershed level. [Ed. Note: A watershed is all the land that drains into a creek or river. You can work with the watershed for a small tributary or for the entire larger river system and all of its tributaries taken together.] What is needed, Charlie believes, is comprehensive watershed-based management solutions. We are capable of predicting the increased flow generated by developments and we can tell them how much water they should retain or release and at what speed based on where they are in the flow system. The technology exists. What Charlie thinks is needed is a dedicated funding stream and clear lines of responsibility and coordination.

The response to substantial damage along Red Clay and White Clay Creeks last year caused the County to post 243 properties as unsafe. Six drainage and flood abatement projects are in the works by the County. Last year they spent millions to buy out the ruined homes in Glenville because they knew they would be flooded again. The State put in $40 million for that effort. In response to emergency problems from the flooding last fall, a $17 million ordinance was passed by County Council in January. Clean up work and projects are under way, still there is no comprehensive watershed plan although $160 per household has been invested in this problem by the County. Further, 97% of our streams do not meet quality standards. [Ed. Note: The community is suffering for the past sins of omission and commission by development interests and public agencies. They all danced to the same tune-- Development cannot be stopped. If it were not for Ed O’Donnell, we would not have even attempted to control it.]

Governor’s Task Force on Surface Water Management

Frank Piorko is in charge of DNREC’s stormwater management program. As an example of the red tape involved in solutions, he told us about Little Mill Creek and how hard it is to get one stream problem fixed. They now have Army Corps of Engineers funds committed to do it, but they are caught in the federal budget cycle while rains continue to fall. A neighbor organized the lot owners nearby to clean out the stream, but they were told they could not do it without a federal permit. The National Rural Conservation Service, the Parks Service and Historic Preservation are all players in these matters too. Everyone’s in charge of something, and no one is in charge of total oversight. He has 17 years of experience and he thinks the Governor’s Task Force is as truly intensive and concentrated an effort to solve a problem as he has seen. [Ed. Update: The report has been published. We urge members to visit the State’s website and the DNREC page to see who the 23 members of the Task Force are and what they recommend. Major developers are serving on the Task Force.]

“When there is a crisis, people call everybody for help. This means everyone gets involved in solutions. Coordination then becomes tougher. Should there be one place to make the initial call?” Piorko asked. (That idea was heartily endorsed by one visitor who noted the frustration for working people of making many calls to try to find help when offices are only open during business hours.) “If people can tell you where the water is coming from (stream, pipe, basin, etc.) we should be able to tell them who will take care of it.” Work gets done, Piorko said. “The Bond Bill Committee has appropriated over $50 million over last ten years through the 21st Century Fund for stream maintenance, but Charlie is correct that it amounts to spot treatment. We can use the watersheds as a predictive tool rather than doing spot treatment.” [Ed. Note: Even doing it that way $50 million should have fixed some streams.] A master watershed plan is necessary for each stream. We need good models and even then they are hard to apply. Necessary federal permits limit the speed with which we can act in some areas. Private land rights make for difficulties. We will do preliminary investigations and then run into a landowner who won’t give access or participate. So rights are another issue in management. We do not have enough funding in Delaware, so we are looking at a stormwater utility. Everyone in the County would get assessed a certain amount for stormwater maintenance work--even those who have not profited from building in floodplains or paving over one-third the County.

Piorko said there are 1,000 drainage complaints on file from County residents. No one has the staff to handle problems of this magnitude. Ken Murphy noted that 2 years ago drainage work backed off due to a drought. Perco acknowledged that it is hard to keep program momentum going when things change. Charlie remarked that the Conservation District has a backlog of projects and requests for assistance and they remain unfunded. Charlie reminded us that it is up to us to call our legislators and demand action. The initiative to solve the problem has to come out of this Legislature. Charlie Weymouth asked if the problem must be solved at the county level, how much will real estate taxes go up? Baker answered that the taxpayers are going to pay one way or another. With the utility fee concept, the more impervious cover (pavement, concrete, buildings) a landowner has, the more he will pay. They have produced a list of tasks and which agencies the job should go to. There is a system of credits built into the stormwater utility plan. One visitor wanted to know if the owner of the Kiamensi Dam stablizes it, would he get credits? Charlie answered yes. Piorko alerted us to the fact we are one of only two states in the country without dam safety regulations (a fact which may explain the number of dam failures we have seen in the two decades).

Piorko reminded us that all Task Force meetings are open to the public and we can look at their meeting minutes on the DNREC page of the State website. For those maintenance corporations that want to be engaged in helping with the problems, his division has educational programs and workshops. Watch for a special newspaper series in June.

One of the themes running through the discussion by the audience was that agencies do counterproductive work or one fixes an area only to have another do something that is damaging. DelDOT gets involved often interfering with the flow of water, but only fixing what lies in their rights of way. One landowner told us he reinforced the stream banks by his house without disturbing the soil, but upstream, the County used earth moving equipment and disturbed the stream and tore out 4 or 5 feet along the stream bank for 100 ft. DelDot tried to improve the road in front of his house and redirected the flow into the stream and ran oil from the road into his well. Another participant complained that millions have been spent on studies and the suggested cures have been ignored. Baker thinks the answer is a matter of getting the money into the agency that can fix the problem. He agrees that the studies that are going on in Red Clay and White Clay will take two years, but he says solutions will not have to take so long in a single neighborhood.

Are we going to try to continue allowing building? Christine Whitehead reported on the letter that she sent to the Council members on our behalf urging that the County stop granting permits to build in those watersheds that have critical problems until the problems are solved. Only Council Member Patti Powell has tried to do anything about slowing development. Her assistant was present and she said Patti is trying to find out a way to do this.

Ken Murphy wanted to know if Charlie has tested the criteria under the new redevelopment ordinance? Charlie thinks that legislative action is needed. “We try focusing what is important on the site. We are forcing treatment. It is not the amount of cement, it is the way the water is handled that keeps floods recurring. Engineers say drainage is a different ball game when the land is flat.” [Ed note to Charlie. Cement does matter. I know you did not mean that.] Charlie thinks that it is the capital funding that is really at the heart of the problem. He said Land Use and Special Services get together all the time to work on this. Implementation is the focus right now. Mike Harmer is in charge.

Report from Christine Whitehead, Secretary and Commentator

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