Flooding? Why surprised? | CLT Blog
Flooding? Why surprised?

Flooding? Why surprised?

Posted on 6 May 2009 by Rhi Bowman

footage from a July 2007 Briar Creek flood by Rustman911 on YouTube

We, as a society, have created this problem through centuries of poor planning. That’s right — centuries*.

With the advent of parking lots and urban sprawl, the problem has only gotten worse. Remember the 2003 Charlotte floods? How about the ones from last summer?

This problem isn’t going away, it’s getting worse. But, have no fear. The solutions are simple. All they need are funding, support and volunteers. The question is: When do we get started?

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Mountain Island Monitor (now the Mountain Island Weekly) in October 2008 about the storm water issue in the Queen City:

Mountain Island Lake provides drinking water for more than half a million people while sustaining area industry and power production. The lake is part of the Catawba River system—a river named this year by American Rivers, a national advocacy group, as “the most endangered river in the United States.”

The watershed, nature’s drainage system, is much larger than the 2,788-acre lake. Storm water from Gaston, Lincoln and Mecklenburg counties drain into the lake through a vast network of tributaries, many of which are unhealthy due decades—perhaps centuries—of poor planning by development and government officials.

Everyone knows development leads to fewer trees and more pavement and that rainwater will always follow the path of least resistance. What people may not realize is when rainwater pours off the pavement, it travels through gutter systems and into streams that are not capable of handling the increased volume of water.

How does development lead to an increase in water volume?

Well, before developers, the water would soak into the ground and be absorbed by trees and other woody plants, which also absorb pollutants. The plants’ root systems also help pull rainwater down into the groundwater system—a slow moving underground water system that provides 50 percent of our drinking water, according to Richard Roti, an attorney and advocate with American Forest, an environmental group whose mission is to “grow a healthier world.”

One inch of rain can generate 27,000 gallons of run off from one parking lot,” says Roti. Twenty-seven thousand gallons of water—per average sized lot and average summer storm—looking for the easiest path to the lake.

The area’s surging population brought with it mighty transformative powers. As census figures swell, so does the demand for development, demand for energy and demand for clean, drinkable water. Without sound ecological planning, however, those goals may float out of reach.

Many residential areas are growing grass right up to the streams,” says Roti. “That’s bad. Fertilizers from yards and silt from developments are deadly to the water system. We have to do a better job of protecting the watershed.”

According to Roti, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area has lost 33 percent of its trees since 1984 due to population growth and the widespread development that followed. He also says taxpayers have paid an estimated $5,328,127,117.00 “to manage the increased volume of storm water, which doesn’t include the cost to convert the water into healthy drinking water.” Not to mention the 37,315,749 pounds of pollution those trees could have removed from the atmosphere, he says.

Currently, the county has a $1 billion dollar budget for retrofitting storm water systems and, as of July 1, 2008, citizens within Charlotte’s city limits are required to pay 7 percent more in storm water fees. Those fees, according to the county’s Web site, are for reducing flood risks and water pollution.

Though 70 percent of Mountain Island Lake’s shoreline is protected land, 80 percent of the tributaries that funnel water into the lake are not—and development is occurring all along the edges of those already fragile waterways. Fortunately, Kroening says, developers are beginning to realize that eco-friendly developments are not just good for the planet; they are also good for their bottom line.

To prove his point, he led the September citizens’ meeting on a tour of CPCC North’s rain gardens—an environmentally friendly parking lot that, as it turns out, is not only less expensive for developers to build, it will also help prevent flooding during heavy rains.

We’ve been over-building,” says Kroening who explained that, instead of mounding heaps of earth in the middle of parking lots, when builders build narrow, grassy valleys throughout parking lots—then fill them with trees and small shrubs—rainwater is more likely to drain into the islands and be absorbed by the vegetation. During heavy rains, a drain allows the water a quick escape. Any water not absorbed is filtered through an underground pipe system—a system all parking lots already have in place, by the way—to a holding pond that prevents the water from rushing into nearby streams and allows pollutants and silt an opportunity to sink, making it easier, and less expensive, to clean the water for public consumption.

Kroening says developers, concerned about the affects of their work on water pollution and urban flooding (and their profits), are beginning to call the county and ask how they can help. “This is a very positive development,” he says, “because we’re not going to be able to crack the problem unless we’re able to work with private land owners.”

We’re moving in the right direction,” he says,” but it takes volunteers. It takes community members getting involved. It doesn’t take a lot (of effort), but we have to get involved to win this battle—and it is a battle everyday.”

*One example: To keep Civil War-era soldiers busy, they were often put to work digging ditches and creeks in an effort to help farmers with irrigation and to control the creek system in the area with little thought about how those changes would affect the watershed and no knowledge of what future demands would be placed on the same land.


Storm Water Fee Public Hearings
As part of its consent agenda, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners has scheduled public hearings for May 19 on proposed changes to the storm water fees for Mecklenburg County, City of Charlotte and Town of Davidson.  The hearings will be held in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center as part of the Board’s May 19 regular meeting that begins at 6 p.m.

Second Update:

The Charlotte City Council is expected to vote on $1,772,006.35 in stimulus funding to help with two storm water projects on Monday, June 82009.


  1. Jason Keath 6 May 2009 at 12:26 PM

    Centuries? More like Millennia. See Pompey — “let’s build our city next to this hot steaming mountain that shakes all the time.”