David Gellatly: A citizen stormwater drainage critique

July 23, 2013 

If your house flooded because the pipes were too small to handle the water flow, you would sue the builder. Chapel Hill floods repeatedly because the stormwater system does not work properly. Is it mismanagement, gross negligence or dereliction of duty? Let’s look at some facts.

For the past two weeks, I have been examining floodplain maps and property tax records to see who owns this problem. I have walked the creeks through deep muck and poison ivy taking photographs and collecting evidence – along with many mosquito bites. I wanted to see for myself why we have such a flooding problem and whether something could be done to avoid future disasters. Oddly, I saw no town work crews or engineers out on the creeks doing the same thing.

The worst spot for Chapel Hill flooding is the point near the soccer fields along U.S. Route 15-501 where Booker Creek and Bolin Creek join to form Little Creek. Upstream Bolin and Booker Creeks have bike paths and nature trails with high value as recreation areas and nature preserves. But once both creeks cross under 15-501, it is a totally different picture. Here there are no trails – just a neglected swamp with creeks full of dead trees and debris with creeks much too shallow to perform their job as Chapel Hill’s drainage system.

So who owns this mess? UNC owns the soccer fields, but the creeks belong to the Town of Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill Country Club owns a small piece of Little Creek, but the Town of Chapel Hill owns the creek as it exits the golf course.

It is crucial to note that when we have a flood, the water does not exit the golf course. Instead, a huge temporary lake is born. So I went for a muddy hike and found that once again, Little Creek is not properly draining the golf course because it is full of dead trees and debris that could – and should – be removed by the landowner, the Town of Chapel Hill.

Looking downstream using Google maps, you can see that Little Creek passes between homes in The Oaks (Helmsdale Drive) and Meadowmont (Millingport Court). Here, the ravine which holds Little Creek is a full 30 feet deep and maybe 500 feet wide, which large enough to hold an enormous volume of water from upstream at the golf course. The key point: If the Town would clear the creek, the water would rush down this ravine and drain the flooded golf course, soccer fields, homes, condos, and businesses back upstream. So why doesn’t The Town of Chapel Hill get busy? It isn’t brain surgery, it’s just working with backhoes and chain saws.

Looking farther downstream, as Little Creek crosses the Durham County Line it becomes the property of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, all the way to Jordan Lake – and there is ample room for all of our floodwater. Now if we, as residents of Chapel Hill, can convince our town leaders to stand up and lead, the problem can be solved.

Weather is unpredictable, but the results of inaction are not unpredictable – and they are not acceptable.

So let loose the work crews! Clear the creeks of debris! Deepen Little Creek near the golf course, and get that water moving! Or, continue to do nothing and watch as more homes flood, and millions of dollars of business and residential homeowners’ money go down the drain. Come on, Chapel Hill, we are smarter than this.

David Gellatly posted this on The Chapel Hill News’ Facebook timeline.

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