Some members of our community spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for the impacts of rain, also known as stormwater.
The Town of Chapel Hill operates a $1.8 million stormwater utilty to keep that rainwater from turning into floodwaters or polluting our towns 200 miles of streams.
According to a newly released draft of a Stormwater Management Master Plan, we could spend over $30 million just to restore 20 miles of those streams.
UNC has its own stormwater management team. The Orange County staff of erosion control and sediment inspectors is dedicated to stopping our Orange County topsoil from filling Jordan Lake. Regulations on stormwater, flood plains and encroachments into our stream buffer zones drive building design and limit the amount of hard surface we allow.
Most of us dont think of stormwater often. We typically care about rain as either life-giving water from the heavens or a nuisance to be planned for and avoided. Usually both.
In our community, where intense drought has been a reality in recent years, we have cut drinking water use drastically and are increasingly using stormwater to flush toilets and irrigate public spaces, further stretching our water supply.
We pay for that. Each 2000 square feet of paved or graveled surface costs a Chapel Hill property owner $39 a year in stormwater fees. That is recommended to double according to one recommendation in the recent draft report.
Capturing this runoff and keeping it on the building site to emulate a flow pattern of what runoff rates were like before development is the holy grail of stormwater engineers these days. A quick look around our community shows a bit of the variety of ways we cope with stormwater.
The Solid Waste Administration building where I work is equipped with an elaborate, costly and aesthetically pleasing system of gutters leading to chain drains feeding open catchment basins lined with smooth white stone and emptying into an underground cistern that supplies our flushing water and irrigation.
Parking lot runoff is slowly filtered through a compact rain garden and series of downstream swales before meandering into the nearby pine grove.
Eastward, behind the Chapel Hill North shopping center, are two fenced off stormwater ponds side by side. Chainlink fences around both say unequivocally keep out not that theres any reason to go in.
Steep, mostly bare, eroded slopes are slowly filling with hardy urban weeds whose roots hold some soil but not enough to make this area the green respite from shopping that it might be.
But the resident Canada geese population seems happy. A gaggle of protective parents, aunts and uncles hissed at me while their tiny fuzzy yellowish-brown goslings scooted playfully back and forth through the diamond shaped fence openings.
The adjoining equally unsightly newer pond captures runoff from the recently completed Chapel Hill North apartment complex. A lone mallard lolled in the center of its mostly empty basin. Some creativity and collaboration between the developers might have resulted in a single really fine and unlikely hidden urban amenity instead of two neglected utilitarian mud holes.
Traveling south into Northern Community Park, one can find the aesthetic antithesis of these ugly ponds. Tucked between the two softball fields and Booker Creek is the towns first constructed wetland that soaks up, filters and naturally treats runoff from the ballfields and surrounding parking lots before it hits beleaguered Booker Creek.
Its hydraulic job was to replace the urban forest that covered these slopes for the past fifty years. This wetland is now slowly filling with sediment, but at its core lies a fecund little pond replete with varieties of dragonflies, water plants and one lovely weeping willow, which is the sentinel whereby you can find the spot.
Take care in your perambulations or you might end up like me, covered in mysterious insect bites that dont seem to be from mosquitoes, ticks or chiggers but itch like a combination of the three.
As a special visual treat if you arrive in mid-spring there is a glorious town-planted iris garden just above the wetland.
Westward to Carrboro, there is a homemade stormwater catchment at the aptly named Bog housing community off Pleasant Drive. This hand-dug and dammed pond, which I wrote about last year in these pages, was built by the residents to transform an unusable, muddy sloped patch of lawn into a wildly successful garden spot.
A young lady lounging nearby in her hammock told me the community hoped to expand the bog by piping more of the roof runoff into their gardens. But she remarked it is a lot of work and costly to them to buy piping and tunnel it under their sidewalks. Based on the rough-hewn beauty spot theyve already created, the results could be worth it.
UNC has installed a varied plethora of stormwater management tools over the past 10 years on almost all new construction.
Green roofs like the one at the FedEx Building are planted with sedums to soak up rain and cool the building. Underneath the third story of the Rams Head Plaza parking deck is a giant cistern holding thousands of gallons that irrigate nearby Erringhaus field. Patches of manicured lawns and elaborate roof drain systems atop the deck feed this catchment rather than sluicing that runoff on to the pavement as in days gone by.
Will all this green infrastructure save Jordan Lake from a nitrified, polluted fate? Is it worth the cost that is now mandated by federal and state regulations?
The jury will be out for another decade or two, but weve found a way to manage our rainwater that is creative, productive and reduces our dependence on increasingly scarce potable water.