QUALITY OF LIFE PROBLEMS
NORTHERN NEW CASTLE COUNTY
This is a commentary on one aspect of the overall problem of the accelerating degradation of the “Quality of Life” for residents of northern New Castle County.
DEGRADATION OF "QUALITY OF LIFE" IN NORTHERN NEW CASTLE COUNTY 1
All four of these problems: ever worsening and more severe floods and droughts; polluted creeks, dirty air related diseases; and, inadequate road systems are connected because they have a common cause; rampant environmentally destructive over-development resulting from inadequate control of land use.
Time considerations cause us to focus tonight solely on the flood/drought problems, the causes and cures.
FLOODS AND DROUGHTS – CAUSES + CURES
Depicted below are the logos and addresses of the Piedmont Environmental Protection Society (PEPS) which is a non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving a livable and safe environment in northern New Castle County. The mechanism PEPS employs is to present technically accurate information on environmental problems in the Piedmont section of northern New Castle County.
While this article concentrates on the Piedmont Basin it is important to note that similar problems are beginning to develop in the rest of the state.
The next drawing shows all six of Delaware’s major drainage basins within the Piedmont Basin Watershed, as well as how the Piedmont area relates to the other drainage areas of the state. It is important to note that the word Piedmont means “foot of the mountains”; a hilly region.
Within the Piedmont Basin Watershed the three sub-watersheds of most concern (because of ever more frequent and more severe floods and droughts) are those of the Brandywine, Red Clay, and White Clay Creeks. These sub-watersheds feature many rolling hills, steep slopes, and valleys. A distinguishing characteristic of the Piedmont Region can be assessed by consideration of the following sketch:
The dotted line from Northern New Jersey slanted down through the upper portion of New Castle County on into Maryland is a “fall line”. That fall line is the bottom boundary of the Hilly Piedmont Basin.
The Piedmont area has radically different geology, hydrology, and topography than the Coastal Plain (gray sector) below the fall line. The Piedmont soils have low to moderate rainwater infiltration rates and the steep hillsides and funnel shaped topography make the Piedmont basin abnormally prone to both floods and droughts. The Piedmont Basin is a relatively fragile water resource ecosystem and its sub-surface aquifers do not have the large water holding capacity typically found in the sandy flat coastal plain systems.
The Piedmont Basin has become increasingly plagued by these interconnected flood and drought problems.
SCOPE OF THE INTERCONNECTED PROBLEMS
Both the floods and the droughts have been occurring more frequently during the past few decades and they are becoming more severe. The flood plains are expanding in area of coverage and are getting deeper over time. The problems are interconnected because they have the same primary major cause, too much impervious cover.
This shows the title of a very significant and concise paper prepared by the executive directors of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the Chester County Water Resources Authority (CCWRA) in 1999.
In this case they are using the term “sprawl” to describe improper, poorly planned and poorly controlled building of housing developments throughout the countryside without due regard to the impact on the water resource system (streams and aquifers and storm drainage capacities). They go on to point out that the primary culprit is the imposition of far too much impervious cover caused by the poorly planned and excessive growth of housing developments.
Now let us concentrate on the problem of floods.
What economic and human costs have been incurred so far?
ECONOMIC AND HUMAN COSTS OF FLOODS SO FAR? 4
Actually the cost of the buyout of flooded homes now exceeds $40,000,000 instead of $30,000,000 noted. No price tag can be placed on the sufferings endured by the many families whose lives were disrupted by the floods.
There have been other economic damages to businesses and homes which have not been noted.
The destruction of the Wilmington and Western Railroad and the devastation of the Center for Creative Arts in Yorklyn were additional multi-million dollar disasters.
It is clear that the flood plains along the Red Clay Creek and its tributaries have increased in area width and in depth as the floods keep getting worse and more frequent. The same worsening flood problems are occurring on the White Clay and Brandywine and now in some of the tributaries to these streams.
FLOOD PLAIN EXPANSION - WIDTH & DEPTH
For the sake of brevity let us consider the situation on the Red Clay Creek since it has had the worst of the problems.
One example of how the flood plain has widened and deepened is illustrated by this photo of the CCA in Yorklyn. Note the water line from the 2003 flood is 7-8 feet above the ground.
Until 2003 no previous floods seriously damaged the school or CCA. The CCA was formerly the Yorklyn Elementary School built in 1932. During the subsequent tropical storm designated “Jeanne” the flood waters came to within six inches of flooding the refurbished CCA again.
Further proof of the increased severity of the flooding episodes may be noted by viewing the wreckage of the destroyed Wilmington and Western Railroad bridge just below the lower Snuff Mill dam near what was the Tape Mill.
This railroad bridge was built 133 years ago (1872) and has survived many floods in previous years.
The photo shows the ruins of the Snuff Mill at Yorklyn, part of which was built in 1790 (215 years ago). The Snuff Mill had also survived earlier less severe floods.
"BUILDING MORATORIUM DRAWS OPPOSITION"
Some of the victims of our flooding problems have convinced their local councilperson to get serious about these worsening problems.
As you will note, the ordinance proposed was to impose a temporary moratorium on new development permits until the county and state governments got their act together on how to address the flooding problems.
As would be expected, a phalanx of special interest lobbyists quickly shot down the moratorium concept.
Any analysis of the causes of flooding problems in the Red Clay Watershed must consider both the natural causes over which we have no control and the unnatural or man-made causes over which we could have some control.
NATURAL CHARACTERISTICS THE RED CLAY CREEK WATERSHED
This slide contains two quotations from the Water Resources agency at the University of Delaware regarding certain natural characteristics of the Red Clay Valley which make it prone to flooding. It is a fact of life that the Red Clay area soils are not sandy soils with a high rate of infiltration.
It is also a fact that the topography of the Red Clay Valley makes it prone to flooding unless proper care on changes to the landscape are enforced. Unfortunately, proper care of the landscape has not and is not being carried out for various reasons.
The topography problem can be noted by consideration of the following topographical map of the Red Clay Valley. The yellow areas are the steeply sloped hills while the greener areas are the lower lying sectors surrounding the blue main stem and tributaries of the Red Clay Creek.
There has been a claim made that a major cause of our flooding problem has been a steady increase in average annual rainfall over the past 55 years as measured at the New Castle County Airport. That claim is both inaccurate and misleading. As can be noted from the chart, the average annual rainfall has varied during that 55 year period from 24 inches per year to 57 inches per year with many peaks and valleys. The normal long term average is 42.8 inches per year. An increase of two inches per year during a 55 year period compared to a normal average of 42.8 inches per year cannot be logically construed as being a major cause of increased flooding because such a small increase is not statistically significant. Further, the New Castle County Airport area is a “HEAT SINK” area which would be expected to show increased rainfall. It is not representative of the areas of concern in the Red Clay Watershed.
U. OF DEL. CLIMATOLOGIST - OCTOBER 2002
In addition, the official keeper of rainfall records, a climatologist at the University of Delaware, stated in an October 2002 Water Policy Forum that, “There has been no significant change in pattern of rainfall in this area during the past 100 years”.
It should be noted that 2003 and 2004 were very wet years but 2005 appears, thus far, to be a more normal year for average annual rainfall.
If a trend toward greater average annual rainfall does develop, it will worsen the problem of flooding still more.
On the other hand, it must be noted that the annual peak stream flows in the Red Clay and White Clay have been increasing steadily over the past 55 years. There is other data supporting that in this chart which corroborates the steady increase in peak (or flooding tendency) flows in all three streams of concern in the Piedmont watershed. This increase in peak flows is one indication that the watershed areas have been artificially altered and more and more runoff from relatively constant annual amounts of rainfall is occurring.
An additional proof of excessive deleterious imposition of impervious cover over watershed areas can be deduced from a review of graphical annual data on the BASE or dry weather flow volumes in the White Clay, Red Clay, and Brandywine.
As shown, there has been a marked decrease in BASE (dry weather) flows in the White Clay during the 1970-2000 period. The same decreases have been noted on the Red Clay and Brandywine. Indeed in one recent year, the White Clay Creek completely stopped flowing for a period.
Given this disturbing information, what limits should be placed on impervious cover imposition?
DRBC/CCWRA-IMPERVIOUS COVER LIMITS 12
The above 10-15% limit specified by authoritative water resource agencies has been exceeded dramatically in the Delaware portion of the ecologically fragile Red Clay, White Clay, and Brandywine watersheds.
The overall significance of the preceding data is that New Castle County government policies have resulted in a fundamental disruption of the natural Water Cycle in the Piedmont Basin.
By permitting imposition of far too much impervious cover thus restricting infiltration into the soil mantle and dramatically increasing runoff we have upset Mother Nature. She now takes her vengeance in the form of floods and droughts.
Just how much does amount of impervious cover affect runoff (floods) and recharge (droughts)?
This is a graph of the federal EPA’s mathematical relationship between % Impervious Cover and Runoff and Recharge for an average watershed.
As noted, the increase of runoff and simultaneous decrease in recharge as % Impervious Cover increases is steep and pronounced. Please note that this chart is for a generalized average watershed. The Piedmont Basin watersheds of the three streams in question are more fragile which means that the increases in runoff and decrease in recharge would be even more pronounced in the Piedmont Basin.
Where do we stand with regard to amount of impervious cover in the Piedmont streams watersheds in Delaware and in Pennsylvania? The following table depicts the situation in the 1992-2002 period.
Compared to a logical 10-15% limit, the Pennsylvania portions were still in good livable conditions according to 1995 and 2002 data even though the trend is upward.
In Delaware portions we see the very disturbing fact that all four creeks (including the Christina) in the New Castle County area are already in deep trouble and the trends are even worse. This data is also three years old and the situation has worsened further since 2002. It is abundantly clear from this data as to why we are experiencing ever more severe and more frequent floods and low stream flows during dry weather.
In considering the % Impervious Cover in the Red Clay Watershed we need to note that the small amount of impervious cover in the Burrows Run preserve area masks the fact that both above Wooddale and below Wooddale the rest of the Red Clay Valley is in real trouble.
The below Wooddale sector of the Red Clay (at 30% Impervious Cover in 1999) is really a problem area. The area above Wooddale (in 1999) was also 7 to 33% over recommended limits. Any further increase in impervious cover in that area will not only be harmful there but will also materially worsen the flooding problem below Wooddale which is already excessively prone to flooding.
The perilous condition of the below Woodale sector is now threated further by a proposed project to pack the form back nine of the Hercules golf course with many new houses. This is a disastrous proposal which should be rejected. This land should be purchased by government and made into parkland.
Let us look at the overall Piedmont Basin area in New Castle County on a sub-watershed basin.
Only the green colored sub-watersheds of Burrows Run, Middle Run, and the White Clay above Newark are not in serious impervious cover trouble. It is not a coincidence that these three green areas all have significant parkland acreage.
Now let us consider an area close to home for GHADA residents – the Cockeysville Water Resource Protection Area (WRPA).
The Blue area is the Cockeysville rock aquifer proper which is overlain by a non-carbonate more surficial aquifer over most of the area labeled Cockeysville Drainage Area (outlined in red).
Unfortunately it is a WRPA in name only. It is not being protected properly.
IMPERVIOUS COVER - COCKEYSVILLE (2004) 19
As can be seen there is already far too much impervious cover over both the deep formation and the partially overlaying non-carbonate aquifer. This is not only an aquifer protection problem but just as or more importantly it is a major factor in the worsening flooding of Mill Creek and other tributaries. To add insult to injury there apparently is going to be another development (Farm Meadows) permitted within the Cockeysville area which will be allowed to exceed the 20% limit restriction by 65%. This variance is being rationalized by having the developer install several small retention basins in the area in an attempt to offset the effects of the increase in impervious cover.
Qualified technical personnel (including this author) have serious doubts about the efficacy and maintainability of these retention basins to provide recharge and prevent added runoff as claimed by the developer. The project papers for this project appear to be based on unproven assumptions and lack essential justification.
What other causes of increased flooding are notable?
MAN-MADE DIMINISHED CAPACITY OF CREEKS
The three streams, in addition to supplying much of the water for Northern New Castle County also serve as storm drains. However, as noted, we have drastically reduced the capacity of the streams to carry off heavy rainfall water by clogging them up.
There are 46 man-made obstructions to flow in the Red Clay Creek. These impediments are from old unused dams which were built to funnel water via raceways into mills to grind grain, saw wood, or power paper or snuff mills. The mills are long gone and the raceways have been filled in but the dams remain.
These dams are unnatural man-made obstructions which, during low flow periods cause a sag in oxygen content of stream water, promote destructive growth of algae slime, and by acting as settling basins, cause a buildup of sediment further diminishing stream storm drainage capacity.
There are also bridges, approaches to bridges, and culverts which obstruct creek flow.
One troublesome dam is at Yorklyn.
This one, at the site of what had been the lower Snuff Mill and later Tape Mill, by the latest indication raises the flood level in Yorklyn (by CCA) by 3.1 feet.
Another very significant combination of an obsolete dam and a bridge at Kiamensi road are a priority problem.
The combination of these two obstacles, the bridge on which I was standing to take the picture slightly upstream and the dam, cause a rise of 11.1 feet in the flood level above them; an obvious priority candidate for remedial action. Please note that the railroad bridge shown is not listed as a major impediment due to its height. However, the effect of the foundations of the bridge on the sides of the creek needs to be considered.
THE WEAK AND INEFFECTIVE
NCC UNIFIED DEVELOPMENT CODE
Earlier recognition of the effect of excessive impervious cover on diminishing the recharge to aquifers led the County Council to enact an ordinance (the Unified Development Code – UDC) limiting impervious cover to 20% maximum only in certain Water Resource Protection Areas (WRPA’s)
It should have been apparent that adequate protection of these fragile watersheds required limits on impervious cover throughout the entire watersheds rather than in just a few bits and pieces. This is one of the several fatal flaws in the UDC which has resulted in its failure.
Enforcement of the earlier UDC has been spotty with frequent variances being allowed by the “Board of Adjustment”.
In addition, the loophole which permits up to 50% impervious cover if certain recharge capabilitites are ostensibly provided has served to further weaken the protective effect of an already ineffective ordinance.
ADEQUACY - EXISTING UNIFIED DEVELOPMENT CODE
It is very important to note that the original UDC, even if it had been properly enforced, would not have protected the watersheds from gradually more severe floods and droughts. This is because the critical limit is 10 to 15%, not 20%. It is also because the projects having 20% Impervious Cover in areas where 20-50% Impervious Cover already exists would inexorably grow worse because the 20% stricture would still allow a deleterious build-up of total Impervious Cover throughout the whole watershed. In effect it is the “Death of a Thousand Small Cuts”.
The UDC was originally developed when the amount of Impervious Cover was much less than current levels. Now a new updated UDC must be based on the more degraded (high Impervious Cover levels) now existing.
WATERSHED RESTORATION ACTION STRATEGY
JOINT EPA-DNREC-PADER FUNDED STUDY (2003) 22
Have the problems been sufficiently "studied". Do we know what is wrong and how to fix the problems? Millions of dollars have already been spent on earlier studies by the County, the State, and the federal government. The causes and the cures are known and documented.
An example is the 2003 report by a joint EPA-DNREC-PADER funded study which was primarily aimed at cleaning up the waters of the three Piedmont Basin streams.
Even though the focus of this study was water quality, the actions it proposed also clearly apply to the flood-drought problems. It recommended that 6000 acres of now open land be purchased and conserved (1000 acres in Red Clay Valley).
It further specified that a 15-20% Impervious Cover limit be rigorously applied to any new development. The study also recommended that storm water control ordinances and programs be adopted and enforced.
Now that we have outlined the problems, their causes and potential cures, where does the responsibility lie for correcting these problems?
Since we live in a representative democracy the general public, all of us, are ultimately responsible for convincing our government officials to do what is right.
The elected officials also have the charge to provide enlightened and well-informed leadership.
The various non-profit environmental watch-dog groups also have a role to play.
The media is supposed to keep the public up to speed on such matters. It seems to blow hot and cold.
Judging by the current situation it appears that all the responsible parties have fallen short of preventing the development of the flood-drought problems and in charting a clear path to setting things right.
Finger pointing won’t work for obvious reasons.
LOCAL VERSUS FEDERAL RESPONSIBILITY
A principal deterrent to developing an effective game-plan to cure the flood-drought problems is the old “Pass the Buck” tactic currently being utilized to limit progress.
One must ask, “Who caused these problems”? The answer is all the local (not federal) responsible parties.
Who should plan and fund steps to rectify these problems? Since we are dealing with problems we locals have caused then we should resolve them locally with local funding. Certainly the taxpayers of the other states are not accountable for our short-comings.
There are no available federal funds even if their use were conscionable, which it is not.
Any money from the federal government would really be money stolen from our children and grandchildren.
WHO ARE THE MOVERS AND SHAKERS
In the end, who calls the shots in New Castle County? Clearly, our elected officials make the final decisions but there are other well organized and funded special interest groups which lobby for whatever they consider is in their own interests. While they have a right to do so, they must be counter-balanced by input from an informed citizenry largely via community civic associations.
These civic associations have the capability to become VOX POPULI, the voice of the people. Currently those voices do not appear to be being heard.
WHAT CAN THE INDIVIDUAL CITIZENS DO?
How can the civic associations help?
First, each association should try to assist local citizenry in developing a good working knowledge of the problems of Floods and Droughts.
It seems that there are enough technically astute individuals in each civic association to develop a good knowledge of these problems.
In unity there is strength. Perhaps each civic association could encourage knowledgeable individuals to serve on a unified ad-hoc group which could meet and map out a campaign to convince our elected representatives to plan and carry out the required remedial program to alleviate the flood-drought problems.
STATUS - CURRENT REMEDIAL EFFORTS
It is clear that County personnel have started to clean-up debris from creeks.
The State and County have worked with the federally controlled Army Corps of Engineers to plan to carry out another study of the Red Clay and White Clay watersheds to identify flood control restoration projects. The project start has been delayed for about 17 months (so far) because of delayed commitment of the so-called federal share of the cost of this new study.
It appears that it will take about seven more years to complete this study and to execute any remedial projects selected as a result of the study. Hopefully, we will not have any tropical storm rainfall events in the interim?
The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is a service organization whose actions are controlled ultimately by Congress and the Executive Branch. They are messengers, not decision makers who are frequently used by our elected officials to stall and delay work on projects. They have been working for about 5 years on a hydrogeological model to determine ultimate volumetric availability of ground water in the below Wilmington area of New Castle County.
This project may have been started to postpone construction of badly needed surface water storage capacity (a reservoir) in northern New Castle County. According to qualified personnel the project is redundant since water yields are already known.
The project may also be meant to support a bid by a water company to abstract 20% or so more water from the Potomac aquifer system below the canal so they can transmit same via a new pipeline (funded by rate payers) to northern New Castle County. The Potomac aquifer system is also utilized by New Jersey and Maryland and concerns on increased withdrawals by New Castle County have already been expressed. Salt water incursion due to over-pumping of aquifers by Delaware has already been noted both in New Jersey and Delaware. This is cited as another example of misuse of the USACE. 23
INTERIM EFFORTS TO REDUCE FLOODING
There are flood control projects which could be planned and executed while we wait on the Corps of Engineers efforts.
On the regulatory side, the County (with State concurrence) could put an effective UDC into place to really protect water resource areas.
The County and State could remove some of the dams and other obstructions to flood flows in the Red Clay Creek.
Most importantly the County and State could expand open space-parkland acquisition in the three critical watersheds.
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