Years of casual land planning on the part of local municipalities and the county is now coming home to roost as local governments are beginning to address stormwater issues that are creating both public health and economic problems and the cost is high as Morehead City is learning.
Last week, the Morehead City town board was given an estimate of $11.8 million for remediation and development of the city’s stormwater infrastructure which is, according to hired consultants, woefully inadequate for current needs, let alone for future growth. This cost analysis should be a wakeup call for the city’s residents and businesses since they are the proposed funders for financing the solutions.
Representatives of Wood Environmental & Infrastructure Solutions, hired by the city to review its stormwater system in 2019, provided a 150 page plus document for the city’s consideration in preparation of developing a comprehensive stormwater plan. The process included a detailed review of the city’s current infrastructure, the city’s operations, state and federal documents and permit requirements as well as citizen and business complaints.
From this two- year review that included a variety of specialties such as engineers and hydrologists, the Durham based consulting firm recommended that the city should anticipate spending at least $713 thousand annually on stormwater management in addition to the $11.8 million needed to modernizing the current system.
There seems to be some “blue sky” in the consultant’s report with proposals such as the creation of an independent stormwater department with separate engineering staff and the production of costly information materials that can be otherwise created at lower costs. The report did not incorporate the existing operations of the city’s public works department. This would be an obvious recommendation to avoid what could become separate internal fiefdoms that might potentially work at cross purposes.
But these are details that the city council and staff will discuss as the program becomes more formalized. Since the town board was receiving the information without the benefit of an earlier review, they declined asking questions until they have had time to fully digest the report and the consultant’s conclusions.
It is coincidental that this report was presented as Hurricane Ida, a category 4 storm was making landfall along the Gulf coast and subsequently moving through the eastern region flooding major metropolitan communities such as New York City with record setting rainfall resulting in 40 deaths. These news stories showcasing the devastation of businesses, homes and municipal services serve to heighten the importance and urgency of the Wood Environmental report.
The circumstances facing Morehead City, as identified by the stormwater consultants, are not unique and definitely not intentional. The stormwater challenges have accrued over the years by slow accretion or accumulation of impervious surfaces.
Over the past 50 years, a random period of time, Morehead City as well as all of Carteret County, has seen expanded commercial, industrial and residential growth that is resulting in more land coverage, particularly of areas that historically were natural collection points for storm water coming from heavy rainfall. In some cases, these natural collection areas have been eliminated by development and infilling, and in other cases the surrounding developments have overwhelmed the water carry capacity of the natural watershed.
During that period the city accommodated this expansion with what was considered acceptable stormwater infrastructure and planning. But now the growth and development of the city has overwhelmed the current stormwater infrastructure.
Stormwater problems tend to develop sequentially, but then in a situation such as an unexpected rain event as is happening with Hurricane Ida in the northeast, or Hurricane Florence with its 36 hour tropical deluge here, the problems become exponentially greater, overwhelming available infrastructure, resulting in millions of dollars of damage, pollution problems and even death.
The consultants also point to change in climate, noting that sea level rise is also compounding the city’s future control of stormwater because of elevated groundwater levels and the potential of saltwater intrusion into the current system.
In the report’s introduction, the consultants identify six primary concerns: increased runoff; undersized infrastructure; inoperable outfalls; king tides and sea level rise; and finally, no overall plan or strategy.
The first five items noted in this list of concerns are the issues that carry the burden of the city’s impending financial investment. But it is the last item on the list, a need for an overall plan or strategy, that needs to be the city’s primary concern.
As the city addresses repairs and up-fitting of its current infrastructure with larger storm drains and improved outfalls, it will also experience increased growth and expanded development. That growth and development need to be planned for now, so that the city can avoid future reports recommending costly remediation.
The consultants go beyond identifying costs for this long-range plan; they also suggest that a storm water service fee be established to fund the program. That is one way to get the public’s interest but it also makes the city’s policy makers and staff more responsive to the residents and businesses that will be paying these fees.
There is no question that remediation is needed and quickly. But equally important is the city’s need to establish a land use plan and by extension, zoning, that is both farsighted and sustainable. Failure to look forward will not only compound an existing and deteriorating problem, it will increase the cost for the city’s taxpayers as well.